It probably isn’t really giving away too much to add that, in the end, Charles blames himself for the violent crime that was committed by the offstage “Boy”–and so do the press, the lawyers involved with the court case, and even Charles’ wife, Kath. As Charles himself says, at the very beginning, “Every story needs a victim.” And by the end of the play, every character seems to be one.
Though it all happens very fast–or more exactly in about 80 minutes (including an intermission)–each of the play’s scenes is between only two of four characters, with Charles the only constant. Such a structural device nicely underscores how The Penitent is ultimately about unresolvable conflicts, specifically within the legal system, journalism, and medicine, all of which are called “loathsome” businesses by Charles’ attorney, Richard, early on.
Religion also enters the story, since Charles “turned to God–for wisdom,” after the Boy committed the murders. On a minimalist but elegant set designed by Tim Mackabee–featuring a moveable table and two chairs, and two angled walls–Charles’ life and world proceed to unravel, during the course of the play. In the opening scene, we learn that the Boy is gay, and that the press has vilified Charles: “For referring to Homosexuality as an ‘aberration,’” when, in fact, Charles had written, in an essay, that it is an “adaptation.” As far as Charles is concerned, the press has “committed libel.” While Charles claims that he can’t testify in the Boy’s upcoming court case due to the Hippocratic Oath and doctor-patient confidentiality, by the end we discover he had other reasons for withholding his own complicity in the crime.
While the basic circumstances of the plot instantly remind one of white supremacist Dylann Roof’s murdering nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church last year, the so-called Boy’s motives remain unknown to us. But once again, The Penitent is less about its somewhat vague circumstances, than about the moral questions that keep rubbing up against the developments that ensue in Charles’ life after the crime has been committed. Then too, Charles’ situation brings to mind I Confess, the Alfred Hitchcock film in which Montgomery Clift plays a priest who cannot divulge that the real murderer of a crime, for which he is tried, was committed by one of his flock who had confessed the murder to him.
The introduction of an otherwise expendable defense “Attorney,” who’s representing the Boy, becomes Mamet’s facile way of introducing the play’s religious questions. (This may explain why Lawrence Gilliard Jr. gives a nondescript performance, in the otherwise nameless role.) According to Charles, by subpoenaing his “records,” the defense team is reverting “to savagery” and calling “it the pursuit of justice.” And at the close of the first Act, Charles says that what’s happening to him is an “inquisition,” which is also a good word for describing The Penitent itself.
Perhaps because Mamet-regular Jordan Lage is so effective as Richard, the scenes between Charles and his own attorney prove the most effective. While Laura Bauer’s sensible costumes do all they can to make her seem real, Rebecca Pidgeon proves robotic as Kath, detracting from her character’s constant bewilderment. (Come to think of it, maybe it was a stylized choice for playing the part, because of Kath’s befuddlement and uncertainty, at every turn.) The last scene is set in a rehab room, where Kath has been confined, following a mental collapse or nervous breakdown.
Chris Bauer, who plays Charles, resembles Mamet himself–which, given the dead-on eyeglasses and salt-and-pepper hair, may be more than coincidence. But apart from his most explosive and effective moments, Bauer proves unconvincing in the part. That, too, may be endemic to portraying a character who is forever contradicting, and seemingly unsure of himself.
Though it was probably the playwright’s decision to include an intermission, director Neil Pepe should have advised against it. If anything, given the quickly paced, tension-filled scenes–and a 65-minute-or-so running time–The Penitent would likely have an even more powerful impact without the break in telling the story. As it stands, it’s like a theatrical version of coitus interrupts.
The Penitent (through March 19, 2017)
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or go to http://www.OvationTix.com
Running time: 80 minutes including an intermission