Life and Death: The Anarchist Is Dead on Arrival, so Is Dead Accounts

'A Civil War Christmas' earns its uplift, 'Golden Age' is a bust

LuPone and Winger in 'The Anarchist.'

LuPone and Winger in ‘The Anarchist.’

To put it in language the playwright should understand: fuck off already, David Mamet.

This is not simply a reaction to his newfound and aggressively evangelized political conservatism. (Though his hectoring “To those Jews planning to vote for Obama” recitation of manifestly incorrect GOP talking points, published in Los Angeles’s Jewish Journal the day before the election, didn’t endear him to this Jew who was planning to see his plays.) It’s not even that, amid the Hollywood paychecks and political badgering, Mr. Mamet seems to have lost it as a playwright, or lost interest in being one, his last three new Broadway outings having been, in order, a sitcom, an artifact and now a lecture.

It’s mostly that he required me to spend a painfully long 70 minutes the other night sitting through The Anarchist, his nearly unwatchable latest. The play, which opened Sunday night at the Golden Theatre, wastes both the talents of two extraordinary actors—Patti LuPone and, in her Broadway debut, Debra Winger—and the money of anyone conned into buying a ticket.

Ms. LuPone (typically forceful, and bravely un-made-up) plays Cathy, the titular anarchist, a Kathy Boudin-like onetime radical who in her youth participated in a robbery that left two police officers dead. It’s 35 years later, and she has been a model prisoner. She has converted to Christianity, has drafted a manuscript about her journey, and is once again up for parole. Ms. Winger (poised and repressed, a cipher) is the jailhouse authority figure—whether warden or parole officer or even social worker, it is never clear—who will decide whether to endorse the application.

What transpires is an hour and change of intellectual sparring, of philosophical debate about crime and punishment, sin and redemption, Judaism and Christianity, sex and truth and justice and loyalty. There is a range of interesting ideas at play, and not a single one is portrayed interestingly.

This is because there is no drama, no plot or character development, no chemistry or fireworks between the performers. Mr. Mamet, directing his own play, has turned his two actors into parodies of fast-talking, affectless Mamet-speakers. They talk at each other, around each other, in an unremitting, untextured stream of hyperarticulate droning. (Ms. Winger’s Ann is apparently the world’s most literate corrections officer.) It is a dull, bloodless seminar, its own life sentence.

In real life, Kathy Boudin was paroled after 22 years in prison. In Mr. Mamet’s universe—one in which Barack Obama’s “liberal government will increasingly marginalize, dismiss and weaken the support for and the safety of the Jewish state,” as he wrote in the Jewish Journal, and in which Bill Ayers is still a terrorist, as he recently mused in The Times—the answer is simple: she’ll stay in jail, which is what she deserves. Which means The Anarchist, tidily, ends right where it began.

Theresa Rebeck’s new play, the dull comedy Dead Accounts, at the Music Box, is also a wasted evening, but much less offensively so. This is surprising, because the message of the play is that New Yorkers are horrible people—you would think she’d try harder to offend us.

Ms. Rebeck, a hot playwright, has had a tough year, having been panned for her leadership of NBC’s backstage melodrama Smash, from which she was ultimately fired. (It will return in February with a new showrunner.) In a recent interview with this newspaper, Ms. Rebeck wallowed in being a wounded Midwesterner in elitist Manhattan: “There’s a thing in New York,” she said in the interview. “‘Did you go to an Ivy?’ ‘Did you go to Yale?’ “Oh, you’re from the Midwest.’ ‘Oh, you’re a girl.’” Of course, she’s had two moderately successful Broadway plays here, and was a Pulitzer finalist for another play, but Dead Accounts, set in Ms. Rebeck’s hometown, Cincinnati, is an indictment of the Big Apple. Never mind Katie or Norbert or Jayne; the play’s real stars are Midwestern values.

Except that Katie and Norbert and Jayne are the reason you’re there. Norbert Leo Butz—in a manic, terrific Norbert-on-uppers performance—plays Jack, prodigal son of a big, middle-class Catholic family, suddenly and mysteriously returned from New York with only the Armani suit on his back and without his wife. At home, he finds his drolly domineering mother, Barbara (the masterfully funny Jayne Houdyshell), and his dutiful and slightly awkward sister, Lorna (Katie Holmes, cute, meek and competent, if not quite a match for those two performers). There’s an offstage father, sick and getting sicker; a few other siblings, unseen but often on the phone; and Phil (Josh Hamilton), a sweet, goofy old friend of Jack’s with a longtime crush on Lorna.

The play opens with Jack gorging on Cincinnati comfort food, first Graeter’s ice cream, and later La Rosa’s pizza. Meanwhile, he’s excoriating New York food, its “duck breast on a red wine reduction with shallots and fennel confit.” Eventually, New York arrives, in the person of Jenny (Judy Greer), Jack’s tall, skinny, blonde, imperious soon-to-be-ex-wife, who reveals why he fled. He has taken $27 million from the bank where he works without attracting any notice, because he took the money from forgotten, abandoned—that is, dead—accounts.

Jack insists he didn’t steal, because the money belonged to no one; Jenny is careful to call him a bank robber. This is where the play shows the potential to become more than the amusing trifle it has been. “You know, you actually do have to stop acting like that’s such a terrible thing, Jenny,” Lorna tells her. “No one in the Midwest gives a shit about banks right now. They’ve been behaving very badly, and they act like it doesn’t matter that people’s lives are being ruined because all they cared about was their profits and bonuses and taking all the bailout money. And now no one can get a loan because they don’t give a shit about people, so we don’t give a shit about them. So don’t go acting like it’s so terrible he stole from a bank. No one here cares.” It’s Ms. Holmes’s finest moment, and the play’s. And then it’s forgotten.

That’s because this is not a play about the financial crisis, about religion (Barbara is a devout believer; her children are not), even, really, about coastal snobbery and American cohesion. It wants to be something thoughtful, but it’s really just pleasant-enough light comedy—snappily directed by Jack O’Brien—with cartoonish, corrupt New Yorkers as the punch line. Dead Accounts ends with Jack in his Cincinnati backyard, contentedly eating plain vanilla ice cream and achieving redemption, maybe transcendence, by suddenly recalling an Arbor Day of his youth. Good for him. I’ll take Manhattan.

A Christmas-meets-American history pageant, delivering seasonal warm fuzzies by telling a story of bloody, fratricidal war and impending presidential assassination? Well, why not? A Civil War Christmas, a late entrant in the holiday-show sweepstakes, opened at New York Theater Workshop last night, and it is an unexpected delight.

A Civil War Christmas is set during a specific Civil War Christmas, Christmas Eve of 1864, just after Sherman’s march to the sea, when the war is clearly won but not yet over, less than four months before Appomattox Court House and, days later, Ford’s Theatre. Playwright Paula Vogel, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for How I Learned to Drive, renders the saga of the war through the intertwined and very personal stories of a range of characters both historical and fictional, from Abraham and Mary Lincoln, Grant and Lee and Booth, and Walt Whitman to a newly freed slave heading north to Washington with her young daughter and a Southern teenager determined to do his part for the Confederate cause. It’s a remarkably successful approach: the well-known story becomes human, engaging, fresh.

But it’s even fresher thanks to the inspired direction of Tina Landau, who uses a wide-open stage and a large, talented cast—Bob Stillman is Abe and Alice Ripley is Mary, and all the actors play multiple roles—to constantly reshuffle the actors, costumes and a few props, creating brief vignettes among the sprawling story. There is Peter and the Starcatcher-like ingenuity at play—an actor named Jonathan-David is wittily charming as a beloved horse, Silver—and Scott Zielinski’s lighting becomes nearly a character of its own.

The end is a bit treacly—both genres demand it—but not overwhelmingly so. In this charmingly low-fi production, and at this purportedly wonderful time of the year, the uplift feels earned.

Terrence McNally has written a moving masterpiece about opera history. Unfortunately, it’s Master Class, and it debuted on Broadway 17 years ago. Mr. McNally’s latest play, Golden Age, is a fictionalized backstage account of the 1835 Paris premiere of Vincenzo Bellini’s I Puritani, and it is a bore.

Walter Bobbie directs this Manhattan Theatre Club production, which opened off Broadway last night at City Center. On a lush Santo Loquasto backstage set, we watch the composer—a raging egotist, played by Lee Pace—manipulate his performers, “the four greatest voices in Europe” (Dierdre Friel as a mercurial soprano, Eddie Kaye Thomas as a neurotic tenor, Lorenzo Pisoni as a matinee-idol baritone, Ethan Phillips as a wizened bass), his lover, Florimo (Will Rogers), and various rivals, including the great soprano Maria Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth), as they all manipulate each other. Finally—finally, more than two hours into the evening—the great Rossini appears, in the person of F. Murray Abraham, to give Bellini his blessing, and the opera is a triumph.

But Golden Age—interminable, overwrought, unengaging—is not. The preening, insufferable Bellini may well have been a great composer, as the play argues. But he’s a tiresome protagonist.

editorial@observer.com