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'The Anarchist' review: Mamet prison drama

Patti LuPone and Debra Winger in David Mamet's

Patti LuPone and Debra Winger in David Mamet's "The Anarchist" on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre. (2012) Credit: Joan Marcus

If the prospect of Patti LuPone and Debra Winger in a two-character prison play by David Mamet conjures some deliriously pulpy women-behind-bars satire, forget it.

Forget also the anticipation of an exhilarating interaction between one of Broadway's most electrifying divas and a long-vanished Hollywood powerhouse in her Broadway debut. LuPone and Winger are terrifically committed to every nonstop syllable of overdrive Mamet-speak in "The Anarchist," and the actresses bounce ideas off one another with the virtuosity of tennis pros.

But "The Anarchist," which runs just 70 minutes, may well be the most severe of Mamet's hyperserious philosophical declamations, a stark and needlessly opaque debate between Cathy (LuPone), a radical prisoner who killed two cops during a leftist political act, and Ann (Winger), her caseworker for the past 35 years.

They have come together before another parole hearing, the last before the officer retires. Since this is a work that Mamet also directed, the delivery is fast, deadpan, stilted and pronounced without the friendly comfort of contractions.

The wonder is that these actors make any emotional connection, and they do, as they talk in historical/intellectual shorthand about Cathy's conversion from wealthy Jewish daughter to political outlaw to author and seeker of forgiveness through Jesus. References are dropped, from activists in Algeria to the "transgressive" nature of the French. From the authority of the State to reason, which, as Cathy opines in a typically intense convolution, "would teach the abandonment of the unfulfillable wish and, so, of the need for patience."

The minimal set and pantsuits are color-coordinated. Cathy, the earthy one with a long silver ponytail, wears flowing aqua and lingers around the aqua upholstered chairs. Winger, the prim brunette with her hair in a tight upsweep, wears a dark tailored suit and sits at the metal desk. (Note to Mamet historians: This is only his second work for two women and both are about lesbians.)

Cathy needs Ann to recommend her parole. Ann reads from Cathy's manuscript. Every so often, the phone rings to remind Ann that the remaining families of the dead cops are waiting.

As I understand the term, nobody here is an anarchist. Mamet is said to consider the piece a "Talmudic argument." It is hard not to wish he were as interested in it as a play.

WHAT "The Anarchist"

WHERE Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.

INFO $59-$129.50; 212-239-6200;

BOTTOM LINE More needlessly opaque debate than drama

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