“It’s been exhausting,” Rebecca Pidgeon said of starring in David Mamet’s dialogue-heavy, two-woman play, “The Anarchist,” at Theatre Asylum through May 23. Pidgeon, who is married to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mamet (“Glengarry Glen Ross,” “American Buffalo”), plays a prison warden tasked with deciding whether a Weather Underground-type terrorist incarcerated for 35 years now deserves parole. “It’s the hardest play I’ve ever had to do,” said Pidgeon, a petite woman with thoughtful brown eyes peeking from under brown bangs. “First of all, just the task of learning the lines is absolutely monumental; it’s such a difficult piece of music to play. … One needs to be en pointe, concentrating to the utmost. … It’s like being run over by a train.”
A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Pidgeon is no stranger to performing in her husband’s work. They met while she was starring in Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” at the National Theatre in London in 1989, and married in a Jewish ceremony two years later. She went on to prominent roles in Mamet films, such as “The Spanish Prisoner,” as well as in his plays, such as “Boston Marriage” and the controversial “Oleanna,” in which she originated in 1992 — in her mid-20s — the character of a manipulative student who accuses her professor of sexual harassment. That performance earned her the ire of some viewers, who would approach Pidgeon on the street and declare that they loathed her. “My response was to go, ‘Wee, wee, wee, all the way home,’ ” she said during an interview at a Santa Monica cafe recently. “I had a dreadful time; actors, I think, get into the profession to be adored. But I suppose it was a compliment to me because they were essentially shaking with emotion.”
In the 70-minute “Anarchist,” Pidgeon’s character of Ann faces off with Cathy (Mamet regular and Oscar nominee Felicity Huffman), who in a terrorist act murdered two policemen decades ago. The prisoner, a Jew who converted to Christianity in prison, cites her faith and her intention to perform good works as reason she should be granted parole, while Ann insists that Cathy deserves her freedom only if she reveals the whereabouts of one of her terrorist accomplices.
The play essentially bombed on Broadway in 2012; Pidgeon did not appear in that production but said she remains puzzled by the negative reviews. Perhaps, she theorized, the intense dialectic was too intimate a play for a large Broadway venue and is better suited for the fewer-than-99-seat Theatre Asylum. (Some reviews have been better so far in Los Angeles.)
By now, Mamet has made his ultra-conservative politics and his staunch support of Judaism well-known. “ ‘The Anarchist’ is, without question, a deeply conservative play by a writer who … has announced his embrace of what most of the people who pay attention to contemporary drama would think of as far-right political positions,” a critic for the Chicago Tribune wrote in 2012. The review also noted that “clearly, Cathy’s expedient conversation away from Judaism is not an event the author admires.”
In response to such interpretations, Pidgeon said, “I don’t think ‘The Anarchist’ is a political play, but rather a polemical, a philosophical play. Because it offers up a moral dilemma; the question is, ‘When has a person paid their dues?’ And you could make the argument that it’s cruel to keep Cathy in prison any longer.”
Pidgeon added that Cathy’s religious conversion “is simply a plot point; also, I happen to know that Dave reveres Christianity and is quite studied in it.”
Mamet has outlined his fervent views on Judaism and Zionism in works such as his 2006 book “The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews,” which dares Diaspora Jews to answer the question, are you “in or out” of the tribe? Pidgeon said she is most definitely “in”; in fact, she helped spur her husband to return to Judaism after they met in the late 1980s. Raised in a nonreligious Christian home in Edinburgh, Scotland, Pidgeon was riveted, early in their relationship, when Mamet handed her a copy of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book “The Sabbath.” “It was the idea of a sanctity of a time in space that really hit home,” she said.
“And then we met a [neo-Chasidic Reform] rabbi, Lawrence Kushner, who really spoke to me. I did an introduction to Judaism class and found myself converting. I wanted to study and to be part of a tribe, to raise my children in a faith and a community. … At first it was a bit difficult because I hadn’t been raised in any kind of faith; I had a reaction against organized religion, because I felt it was like a cult. But one of the reasons I loved Judaism is because the emphasis is so much on study and questioning. And you don’t have to proclaim that you have blind faith; you can be a troubled soul struggling.”
After moving to Los Angeles in 2002, Mamet and Pidgeon became deeply involved in Rabbi Mordecai Finley’s congregation Ohr HaTorah. Their two children, now 20 and 16, grew up in the synagogue. Mamet and Pidgeon took Torah and Hebrew classes with the rabbi, and Pidgeon said she was intrigued by Finley’s teaching of “Mussar, the study of, sort of, spiritual morality,” she said.
She was drawn to “The Anarchist” in part because of its emphasis on spiritual morality; Jewish values in the play include teshuvah (repentance), justice and a quote from Proverbs that Mamet has said helped inspire the play — “Compassion to the wicked is cruelty to the just.”
“The Anarchist’s” Los Angeles production began about three months ago, when Pidgeon announced to her husband her desire to go to New York to work with the Atlantic Theater Company, of which she is a member. She said she yearned to do theater again, as she had not appeared onstage since performing in Mamet’s “Boston Marriage” at the Geffen Playhouse years ago. Rather, she has been more active as a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, with at least eight albums under her belt, and an upcoming concert featuring songs from her edgy and well-received new album, “Bad Poetry,” at Hotel Cafe on May 9.
“But I don’t think Dave liked the idea of me going to New York for a long period of time,” Pidgeon recalled. The next day, the playwright proposed doing “The Anarchist” in Los Angeles instead.
Although there are distinct advantages to being married to the play’s author, Mamet wasn’t always helpful when Pidgeon queried him about her “Anarchist” character. At one point, he asked her, “Didn’t you read the play when you signed on to do it?” To which Pidgeon tartly replied, “You asked me to act in the play, not to read it.” Eventually, however, Mamet proved helpful in talking through the intentions of Pidgeon’s character.
Mamet has famously said that it is the job of the playwright to create a character and the job of the actor simply to “show up.” As Pidgeon explains it, “Dave says that really everything is about casting, and that a play is sort of finished when you cast, because you know what kind of a performance you are going to get from that actor,” she said.
“But there’s nothing an actor can do to stop his or her own soul being a large part of the character,” she added a bit later in the interview. “You can’t change who you are.”