“Words not meant to misdirect are wasted,” says one of the combatants in “The Anarchist,” and at certain levels that might describe the whole thing.
David Mamet’s 2012 provocation is at its heart an extended ideological dialectic, with a deliberately oblique outcome. Still, in the expert hands of Felicity Huffman and Rebecca Pidgeon, it certainly keeps us listening, watching and guessing.
Thirty-five years ago, Cathy (Huffman) was part of a Weather Underground-esque radical enclave and killed two policemen, for which she was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Her case comes under review again by Ann (Pidgeon), who leaves her post after this interview and to whom Cathy vehemently asserts her genuine conversion to Christianity from Judaism as moral justification for release. Ann -- as unyielding in her personal societal imperative as Cathy, whose father is dying, is in hers -- demands the location of Cathy’s accomplice and lover as proof of her rehabilitation.
Their face-off constitutes the script, which notoriously failed on Broadway with Patti LuPone and Debra Winger. Here, in a far smaller venue, there is a closer perspective to assess the text, which is both accomplished -- Mamet’s use of opaque motivation, withheld details and rhythmic specificity remains razor-sharp -- and frustrating.
Neither character speaks in ordinary conversive terms, but rather astonishingly articulate volleys of philosophical argument and counter-argument, theoretically incisive but inconducive to plausibility.
As such, “Anarchist” suggests a translation of a European think piece such as “No Exit,” its slender premise wrapped in so much reiteration that Philip Glass sometimes comes to mind.
Still, if Mamet's narrative is more pamphlet than dramaturgy, it's unswerving in intent and word-smithery. Director Marja-Lewis Ryan keeps the verbiage taut, almost to a fault -- a looser tempo occasionally wouldn’t hurt -- and her players are first-rate, although neither looks remotely as old or world-worn as they describe each other.
Huffman, always ferociously intelligent and nuanced, and Pidgeon (the playwright’s wife), whose stillness conceals a laser-beam inner response, make perfectly in-sync opposites, arresting at the final twist.
“The Anarchist” won’t be for everyone, to put it mildly. Mamet devotees and fans of plays of ideas should decide for themselves, which one suspects is precisely its author’s aim.
“The Anarchist,” Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Ends May 23. $34. (323) 950-7784 or www.plays411.com/anarchist. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.