Playwright David Mamet pinpoints a moral issue in his play, “The Penitent.” Should a psychiatrist who has treated a murder defendant who has been his patient give up records of the relationship that are demanded in court proceedings? Charles, the psychiatrist, played grimly by Chris Bauer, doesn’t think so in relation to the defendant known as “The Boy” and resists.
The play, presented by The Atlantic Theater Company, unfolds in episodic scenes between Charles and his wife Kath, portrayed by Rebecca Pidgeon, and Charles and his lawyer friend Richard (Jordan Lage) and another attorney (Lawrence Gilliard Jr). The structure is simple but aspects added to the main moral issue grow complicated, including Charles’s attitude toward religion.
The most interesting scenes involve face-offs between Charles and Kath. Charles has been battered in the press for something that he has written and is misunderstood as anti-homosexual. His stand on principle is also under attack, and Kath complains that she is suffering because being his wife has also put her under attack and shunning by friends.
Kath urges that he stop resisting and do what is demanded of him. She cannot abide his stance and rails against his stubbornness as not caring about her feelings.
Of course, we discern basic problems in their relationship, and there are revelations to come, including a confession from Kath after she has been hospitalized with what seems to be a breakdown.
Even though the play runs only about 75 minutes, it seems to go round and round at times in repeating the issues laid out for us. Although one can be absorbed, there is thinness in this Mamet play, which lacks the bite of his better works.
My main enjoyment came from watching Pidgeon, whose work I have admired, particularly on screen, as in a remake of “The Winslow Boy” and “The Spanish Prisoner.” Her performance in “The Penitent” gives the play a consistent edge.
Neil Pepe’s direction unfolds the succession of intimate scenes effectively, but there is nothing that he can do to whitewash the fact that the play itself, although always interesting, is Mamet light. At the Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street. Phone: 212-691-5919. Reviewed March 5, 2017.