In "The Anarchist," by David Mamet, a former political radical who has served 35 years in jail argues for clemency from a prison official who holds the power to set her free.
Is a second chance in the cards? Perhaps the more relevant question for audiences is whether "The Anarchist" — which flopped on Broadway — deserves one.
For its Los Angeles premiere, two actresses who are no strangers to the playwright's particular universe have signed on to make the case. Felicity Huffman plays Cathy, the incarcerated leftist who claims to have found Christ, and Rebecca Pidgeon is Ann, her stoic interrogator.
Over the years, they have navigated Mamet's dialogue numerous times on stage and screen. But in a recent interview, even they conceded that "The Anarchist" has been far from easy.
"I would say this is the most difficult play I've ever done," said Pidgeon. "This wins the gold medal."
Huffman used a more Mamet-esque description: " 'Oh ... !' That was going through my head," she recalled thinking at the first read-through.
She said the play contains such intricate speech that "it takes me almost two hours to learn a page."
Both actresses were seated in Hollywood's Theatre Asylum — a small stage with fewer than 99 seats — where "The Anarchist" is running through late May.
It's a world away from the 800-seat John Golden Theatre in New York, where the play opened with Patti LuPone and Debra Winger in 2012.
"The Anarchist" was an unconventional choice for Broadway, given its dense, philosophical power plays and minimalist setup — two women in a room, talking.
The play, which runs just 70 minutes, met a quick demise following mostly negative reviews and poor box office. It was a significant setback for Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist famous for "Glengarry Glen Ross," "Oleanna" and "Speed-the-Plow."
Both Huffman and Pidgeon said they believe "The Anarchist" is better suited for a small stage.
"I'm so glad we're here and not at a bigger theater. This tiny, intimate space is claustrophobic, and it feels like the audience is in the room with us," said Pidgeon. "There's nowhere to hide here. You're almost part of the play."
Huffman said "The Anarchist" requires that audiences be alert and attentive. You "can't space out because you're 200 seats back," she said.
The L.A. production, directed by Marja-Lewis Ryan, came together quickly. Mamet was impressed with Ryan's play "One in the Chamber" and suggested that she direct "The Anarchist."
"The next day we were in my living room reading through the play," recalled Huffman. Initially, they planned to mount a production in a compressed two-week schedule, but the complexity of the language compelled them to scrap that idea.
"In a way, it's almost a foreign language. But it's really our language brought to its apex," she said.
Pidgeon said that Mamet left them to their own devices at first. "It was very irritating that he didn't help us at all!" said the actress, who is married to Mamet.
But the playwright, who declined to be interviewed, eventually provided some guidance, including a change in blocking for a crucial passage near the end.
Huffman said that she felt dissatisfied after a recent preview performance and that Mamet offered some advice.
"He said every night it's going to be different," she recalled. "He said that you're not going to become comfortable in the play — what you are going to be comfortable in is the unknowing."
"The Anarchist" explores Cathy's violent past with a radical political group as well as her subsequent decades spent in lockup, during which she has pursued a life of the mind and adopted the teachings of Jesus.
LuPone, who originated the role on Broadway, spoke about the play's abrupt closure in a recent, separate interview.
"I'm still blown away by it," she said. "It was horrific. We were devastated."
The actress said that money that could have been used to see the play through its early weeks was given back to investors.
"I screamed at the company manager," LuPone said. "It's not about putting a show up; it's how to keep the show running. I told him that he just didn't give it a chance."
A spokeswoman for lead producer Jeffrey Richards said he was en route to England and was unable to comment. However, she said that Richards will be negotiating a new production of "The Anarchist" in London.
Both Pidgeon and Huffman said the play leaves little room for error for its actors.
"It's like rock climbing together and we're tied together by a rope," said Pidgeon. "Every little thing throws you off. Every stray thought shows up in the play."
The actresses appeared together in Mamet's "Boston Marriage" at the American Repertory Theatre in Massachusetts in 1999. Both plays are female-centric and feature lesbian undercurrents.
Having worked frequently with Mamet, "I feel like I sort of know what Dave wants," said Huffman. "It helps living with Bill Macy [her husband], who has done a lot of his work. He has an idea of how the music should be played."
Huffman, an Emmy winner, can be seen in ABC's drama series "American Crime," which kicked off its first season earlier this year.
"Dave never talks down to the audience," she continued. "In TV, you hear, oh, they're not going to get it. But with [Mamet], absolutely — they will get it."
Where: Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays. Ends May 23.
Info: (323) 962-1632, www.theatreasylum-la.com
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