NEW YORK — In the 1970s and 1980s, there was an impossible-to-ignore electricity crackling through David Mamet plays like "Sexual Perversity in Chicago,'' "American Buffalo,'' "Glengarry Glen Ross,'' and "Speed-the-Plow.''
But of late Mamet has been experiencing a severe power outage. Even Nathan Lane couldn't transcend the shallowness of "November,'' a toothless 2008 political satire in which Lane portrayed the president. "Race,'' which premiered three years ago on Broadway and was produced this fall at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, proved more glib than illuminating in its treatment of a weighty subject.
Mamet's slump continues with "The Anarchist,'' a sluggish and inert two-character drama about a former political radical and convicted murderer who pleads with a prison official for her freedom after decades behind bars. Directed by the playwright and starring Debra Winger and Patti LuPone, it opened Sunday night at the Golden Theatre.
The premise has promise. It's the sort of thing that interested Dostoyevsky: a moral showdown that pits an individual who is, or was, willing to go to extremes in pursuit of revolutionary goals against the implacable power of the state.
If Mamet more fully explored the questions of guilt, forgiveness, faith, justice, redemption, and vengeance that he raises, and if those questions were embodied by fully realized flesh-and-blood characters, "The Anarchist'' might be a provocative addition to his body of work. But he doesn't, they aren't, and it isn't.
Instead, Mamet entombs the dramatic possibilities of "The Anarchist'' within a welter of abstraction. The fresh and arresting idiom for which he was once known degenerates here into mere attitudinizing. There is evidence of Mamet's ferocious intelligence but not of his once-uncanny ear for language as the prisoner and the jailer engage in a windy and protracted conversation that ranges from stilted to repetitive to opaque. It comes across less as a war of nerves than an exchange of talking points. (Missing in action, remarkably for Mamet, is profanity.)
The stakes are supposed to be high for the two characters onstage and, by extension, for us. But we don't feel it. "The Anarchist'' is more dialectic than play, and yet even as an indictment of the excesses of '60s-era radicalism, if that was Mamet's goal, it fails to compel.
Presented with the challenge of bringing to life this murky duo, one skilled actress founders and one manages to find her footing.
In the former category is Winger, who, in her Broadway debut, delivers a stiff and colorless performance as Ann, an official at a women's penitentiary who seems to be a combination of warden and parole officer. (As with much else in "The Anarchist,'' it's a bit vague). In any case, Ann is supposed to be the forbidding face of authority, and we are meant to wonder what she's really thinking and planning behind her impassive expression, but she's less an enigma than a cipher. To judge by her tentativeness onstage, Winger appears to be still searching for her character. If so, she's not the only one.
The ever-expert LuPone, a veteran of such Mamet works as "The Old Neighborhood,'' "Edmond,'' and "The Water Engine,'' fares better as Cathy, the prisoner. Cathy served 35 years in prison after two police officers ended up dead during a bank robbery she carried out with other members of a Weathermen-like organization. Now, Cathy argues that she has been punished enough: "It's time to let me go.'' Broadening her argument to include the notion that people can change, she insists that she has renounced violence and wants to devote her life to religion ("I have embraced Christ,'' "Christ has cleansed me'').
Is she telling the truth? LuPone keeps us guessing. With gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, her natural ebullience reduced to a low simmer, LuPone's face and voice flicker back and forth between supplication and defiant challenge.
Patrizia von Brandenstein handles both the scenic and costume design, which are correspondingly, and fittingly, drab. LuPone wears an olive-green jacket and matching pants, while Winger is attired in a blue suit and white shirt. A long bank of small file cabinets lines the rear of the stage; seven large circular lights loom above, interrogation-style, as Ann keeps reading excerpts from revolutionary tracts Cathy wrote decades earlier and insisting, as a condition for recommending her release, that the prisoner disclose the whereabouts of her partner and former lover.
Cathy insists she doesn't know where her ex-lover is, asserting, in an all-too-typical example of the play's dialogue: "She ceased writing to me and I pined for her.'' Who talks like this? Increasingly, alas, the answer is: Characters in plays by David Mamet.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.