In Defense of Late Career Playwrights
Mamet's The Penitent and McNally's Penitent
I saw The Penitent twice last month—which is to say, I saw Penitent by Terrence McNally at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and The Penitent by David Mamet at the Atlantic Theatre.
The McNally piece was one of seventy-four plays, none longer than a few minutes, commissioned by Primary Stages for a single evening entitled “Morning in America, November 9, 9 a.m.” Experienced playgoers and playmakers could reasonably assume that the seventy-four playwrights shared similar views about the election results, and that they would interpret their assignment both literally (November 9 being the morning after Election Day) and ironically (“Morning in America” was Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan). One of the plays that met both expectations, in a memorable way, was by Matthew Capodicasa, given a title made up of punctuation—[…]—and consisting of an actor who just kept looking at his smart phone and saying “F…!”
Several plays pictured a character stuck in a nightmare, such as Kat Ramsburg’s How To Get Out of Bed When You’re Out Of Xanax. Bekah Brunstetter’s Meryl’s Apology beat Jimmy Kimmel’s “overrated Streep” riffs at the Oscars by a week. However likeminded their politics, the playwrights were theatre artists, not manifestly polemicists, and so there was a range of tones and subjects. Jonathan Tolins, performing his own play, Make My Colon Great Again, gave an amusing account of his discovery that the surgeon he had selected to perform a major operation on him was a Trump supporter; after some (hilarious) indecision, it ultimately didn’t change his mind about her competence. In Topher Payne’s more serious All Apologies, a Trump supporter said he was going to stop apologizing for being white and being Christian and being from a rural area: “We’re not sorry anymore.” Thanks to Payne’s words, and the actor portraying the character, All Apologies came off not as chilling or repellent but as insightful.
The penitent in McNally’s play, read by Richard Masur, was asking his priest for forgiveness because he voted for Trump. There was a suggestion in the text that the character is a racist, but McNally deliberately complicates the picture; the character tells us he voted for Obama.
It is safe to say that Penitent is not McNally’s best work. But I’ll go further—I haven’t cared for the work he’s done in the past decade: Mothers and Sons; The Visit; the updated It’s Only A Play—as much as the plays and musicals earlier in his career—Master Class; Love! Valour! Compassion!; Ragtime; Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. What I hope is that McNally, now seventy-seven years old, doesn’t care what I think, and keeps on writing and getting produced—which he seems to be doing: He wrote the book for the musical Anastasia, set to open on Broadway in April.
Both Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller—even better established as great dramatists—wrote their most popular plays when in their thirties, and almost all their familiar plays by the age of fifty.
Mamet’s The Penitent, which is on stage at the Atlantic through March 24, is a full-length play, but a short one—eight two-character scenes, and a running time under ninety minutes, which includes an unnecessary intermission. Chris Bauer portrays Charles, a psychiatrist whose patient has gone on a killing spree. Citing his oath of confidentiality, Charles refuses to talk to the press about “the boy” (as the killer is called by all the characters), and refuses as well to testify on his behalf. Somehow, Charles becomes a victim of the press, of the legal establishment, and of the medical establishment, which begins the process of taking away his license. I say “somehow,” because I didn’t understand the cause-and-effect. Too much of The Penitent’s plot struck me as muddled. What seemed clear is that Mamet is using the play to make cynical observations about these American institutions, and also to explore the contrasting obligations of professional ethics and religious morality. (After the trauma of the killings, Charles has returned to the piety of his childhood.)
It is safe to say that The Penitent is not Mamet’s best work. But I’ll go further: I haven’t cared for the work he’s done in the past decade—Oleanna, Race, The Anarchist, and China Doll—as much as the plays and movies earlier in his career—American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross (which won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama), Speed-The-Plow, A Life in the Theater; the movies for which he wrote the screenplays, The Untouchables and The Verdict.
The difference between McNally and Mamet is the pile-on. The Old Neighborhood was the last new Broadway play of Mamet’s that received widespread acclaim; it opened in 1997. The reviews for his subsequent work seem to have gotten progressively worst.
Until then, critics were placing Mamet “in the pantheon” of the twentieth century’s “great dramatists.” Some attribute the change to Mamet’s much-publicized “conversion” from liberal to conservative. Those who believe this on the political left imply his politics have clouded his dramatic judgment. Those who believe this on the political right say his politics have clouded the judgment toward his work of the critics and left-leaning playgoers.
It’s hard for me to accept either of these as the whole picture when I consider his play November, a political satire that opened on Broadway in January 2008, a couple of months before he wrote the article in the Village Voice, “Why I Am No Longer A Brain-Dead Liberal.”
In November, Nathan Lane portrayed an unpopular president who was desperately scrambling to avoid losing a second term. Act II begins with his aide saying:
“We can’t build the fence to keep out the illegal immigrants.”
“Why not?” the president whines.
“You need the illegal immigrants to build the fence.”
Keep in mind this was in 2008, during the administration of George W. Bush. Is this conservatism in the Age of Trump?
Mamet himself has implicitly acknowledged the decline of his work, and implied it’s due to his age. “Playwriting is a young man’s and, of late, a young woman’s game,” he said in 2005, when he was fifty-seven. (He turns seventy this year.) “Most playwrights’ best work is probably their earliest.” This may or may not be true, but it’s not the whole story. Both Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller—even better established as great dramatists—wrote their most popular plays when in their thirties, and almost all their familiar plays by the age of fifty. But they both kept on writing for the rest of their lives, producing works over decades to which many contemporary critics reacted dismissively. Since their deaths, a new generation now defends Miller’s and especially Williams’ later work, fighting to reverse a consensus they see as unfair and inaccurate.
To my mind, then, the authors of Penitent and The Penitent have nothing for which they need do penance. They should just keep writing.
Jonathan Mandell’s Newcrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of each month. See his previous pieces here.