Felicity Huffman and Rebecca Pidgeon square off in the cat-and-mouse game that is David Mamet’s provocative yet abstruse The Anarchist, the duo’s superb performances and bona fide star power, the intimacy of Theatre Row’s Theatre Asylum, and ticket prices about a quarter of what they were when Mamet’s latest premiered on Broadway combining to make this 99-seat-plan production a likely candidate for hottest ticket in town.

anarchist photo

Easily one of the wordiest (and perhaps the most frequently impenetrable) Mamets ever, The Anarchist focuses on a pair of formidable women whose battle royale will mean either freedom for one or the thrill of victory for the other.

Producers Emily Peck and Marja-Lewis Ryan insure an audience’s swifter entry into The Anarchist’s often off-putting verbiage by providing a brief summary, which this reviewer will copy from the program and reprint here:

“Decades ago, Cathy and a group of young anarchists murdered two police officers. Now, just moments before her final parole appeal, while the victims’ families wait in the office next door, Cathy must convince a prison administrator, Ann, of her reformation or risk serving a life sentence.”

Thus forearmed, audience members will more easily make it through opening lines like “One may be patient only for something [such as] a deferred desire, or the cessation of discomfort” and “Reason would teach the abandonment of the unfulfillable wish; and so, of the need for patience” to get to the nitty-gritty of Cathy and Ann’s duel to the death.

Cathy (Huffman) hopes persuade Ann (Pidgeon) that her conversion from Judaism to Christianity, the subject of a manuscript she has written and which Ann has in her possession, has brought about her personal redemption, no easy task to accomplish against a foe who spits out “rehabilitation” the way someone else might say “dog shit.”

There is, Ann maintains, a more effective way for Cathy to secure her release from prison, and that is by revealing the current whereabouts of her onetime accomplice/lesbian lover Althea, information Cathy insists on not knowing, regardless of what Ann might believe.

Anyone reading The Anarchist will likely find themselves alternately put off/confounded by Mamet’s discussions of religion, semantics, and political ideology, and gripped by Ann’s probing into events that transpired thirty-five earlier, questions that reveal an undue fascination with Cathy’s sexual proclivities.

Fortunately, with Oscar nominee Huffman facing off against Mamet leading lady extraordinaire Pidgeon, even the playwright’s densest passsages and most esoteric words come to life on the Asylum stage as they never could on the printed page, particularly under Ryan’s gifted direction.

Both stars give brilliant, multilayered performances revealing a facility with Mamet that makes even lines that could otherwise come across more “written” than “spoken” sound real, Huffman’s no-nonsense vowels contrasting with Pidgeon’s mid-Atlantic affectations in a way that adds shadings to Cathy and Ann not necessarily in Mamet’s script. And Huffman and Pidgeon really listen to each other, which makes each as fascinating to watch when silent as when speaking.

Scenic designer Michael Fitzgerald’s meticulously detailed set (props by Debra Miller) is so much more than simply Mamet’s “an office,” and it has been lit to stark, dramatic effect by lighting designer Karyn Lawrence. Courtney Hoffman’s costumes and the production’s uncredited sound design are both topnotch.

Susan K. Coulter is stage manager. Heidi Sulzman is understudy.

The Anarchist flopped big on Broadway a few years back, proving that even the star power of Patti LuPone and Debra Winger can’t fill an 800-seat theater with tickets running as high as $130 (and doubtless scalped considerably steeper) when it’s not an easily accessible crowd-pleaser, and some audience members may still exit the Asylum Theatre scratching their heads at The Anarchist’s murkier exchanges.

Still, the cheers that greeted last night’s opening performance make one thing abundantly clear. With Felicity Huffman and Rebecca Pidgeon each giving as good as she gets, The Anarchist’s Southern California Premiere is likely to be an SRO smash.

Theater Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
April 24, 2105
Photo: Jeff Fasano Photography

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