How it’s New York: The play is by acclaimed playwright David Mamet, who is a founding member of one of NYC’s finest residential theatres, Atlantic Theatre Company.
How it’s (Irish) English & Jirish: Rebecca Pidgeon, who plays one of the four roles, has dual British/American citizenship. The play is Jirish because the main character is Jewish and has recently turned to religion to deal with his guilt.

Is it better than “China Doll?”

That’s the burning question.

It is. But honestly, that’s a low bar.

You may remember that David Mamet’s 2015 play, “China Doll,”  starred Al Pacino, who notoriously couldn’t remember his lines. The Broadway play was bad. It wasn’t entirely Pacino’s fault , because who in the Hell casts a movie star in a roll in which he basically has a long monologue (on the phone) for half an hour?  (Yes, Pacino has done a lot of stage work, but not in a while.)

In contrast, “The Penitent” has a series of two-person scenes. There is conflict. (There’s also some clumsy exposition.) There are characters. There is some decent acting (though Rebecca Pidgeon is so horrifically affected she was difficult to watch. She actually waited mid-line to be interrupted. Seriously, acting students know better.)

One could even say, “The Penitent” is GREAT!

Great, that is, if you know nothing about law, psychiatry or Judaism.

That is sarcasm (clarifying because a sweet friend missed it.)

“The Penitent” is GREAT ff you’ve never watched an episode of “Law & Order,” “Frasier,” taken a comp lit class or known a Jewish person.

If you’ve just been dropped onto earth and never watched television, you may find suspense in this tale of a psychiatrist  (Chris Bauer, who played Andy Bellefleur in “True Blood”) who has turned to religion after a client  always referred to as “The Boy” (apparently modeled on a Dylan Roof type shooter)  objects to a libel in a newspaper and then finds himself increasingly coerced to come to “The Boy’s” defense.

Among the things Mamet thinks audiences won’t understand:

1. You shouldn’t volunteer information in a deposition; just answer the question. No duh. In case you have ever seen a cop show, perhaps you can use Jeff Sessions weirdly volunteering information in his hearing as a cautionary tale. This kind of thing.

2. Leviticus says homosexuality is a sin, therefore people who believe the Bible are homophobes– except they aren’t. Again, no duh. The obvious response is that strict interpretation of Torah would also mean not mixing materials and stoning grumpy. Charles clearly isn’t even Modern Orthodox, wearingneither a yarmulke nor fringes, but neither the psychiatrist nor the attorney for the defense (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr., of “The Walking Dead”) deposing him notice that. It beggars belief that nobody, as in NOBODY, understands that individual Jews don’t interpret the law– and even if opposing counsel were dumb enough to try a “gotcha” with the Bible, the notion that being a believer makes you a homophobe is so offensive and so freaking easy to argue that literally no lawyer would ever try it.

There seriously needs to be a genre just for “plays about a religion the playwright doesn’t really understand.”

Charles calling what’s happening to him an “Inquisition” still doesn’t make this a play about religion.

The homosexuality mentioned above matters because “The Boy” apparently stated that the psychiatrist wouldn’t help him because he was gay, and then after he shot a bunch of people a newspaper misquoted the psychiatrist as writing that homosexuality was an “aberration.” In fact, Charles had called it an “adaptation.” That is a straight up error, which leads to:

3. Newspapers care a lot about libel and never make demands about what a person should do in order to have a retraction printed. Sorry but that just DOES NOT HAPPEN.

Signed, journalist.

Oh I’ve lost the heart to continue. This play is stupid, and  sorry but no, New York Times, it isn’t a “boxing match,” it’s well-ordered responses to obvious points nobody would ever say. Director Neil Pepe paces every scene the same. Plot. More plot. Twist? Plot.


The simple set of a conference room  (design by Tim Mackabee) was  too simple. I didn’t realize until fairly late that every time they turned the table we were meant to be somewhere else, say, the psychiatrist’s home with his increasingly distraught wife Kath (the above-mentioned screechingly awful Pidgeon).  Costumes (by Laura Bauer) also called attention to themselves in a bad way. Kath is costumed in ripped jeans and clunky boots– was she supposed to look like a middle-aged woman trying to look young? The deposing attorney, the sole actor of color, wore checked socks and a shirt. Was he supposed to look slick?

Jordan Lage is however terrific as the lawyer Richard and nearly makes Mamet’s nonsensical legal advice sound good. Nearly. Lage is a founding ensemble member of the company (Pidgeon is listed as an ensemble member so go know) and his natural delivery, commanding presence and humor give the play the meager enjoyment it offers (he also throws Pidgeon’s woodenness into relief, unfortunately). Lage shines with  candor and persuasiveness. He’s performed in a lot of Mamet’s plays, and you can see why. He instantly brings up the level of whatever he says, and makes Mamet’s highly ornamented dialogue seem natural.

There’s a twist in the final scene which is surprising– and gives Pidgeon her one good scene– but it’s also completely implausible.

“The Penitent” is 90 minutes, with an intermission. That was too long.

“The Penitent” runs at Atlantic Theatre Company, 336 West 20th St., through March 19

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.