Review: Janie Dee in ‘Linda’ & David Mamet’s Latest, ‘The Penitent’

Richard Termine

If the question of whether a woman can have it all makes your eyes glaze over, you’re probably a man. One theatergoer’s fallow field can be another’s fertile ground. In the case of Penelope Skinner’s Linda – which opened Tuesday at the Manhattan Theatre Club in a sleek production directed by MTC a.d. Lynne Meadow – a subject familiar to fans of, say, the late Wendy Wasserstein, is given fresh oxygen in a narrative that adds some layers of complexity and topicality to one of the defining issues of our time.

Janie Dee stars as Linda Wilde, a sweat-free multitasker who confidently breezes into her Williams-Sonoma-worthy home kitchen after a full day’s work at the beauty products company where she’s a senior executive. Throwing together dinner (risotto for husband, pasta for her younger daughter), debriefing them on their mood, Linda almost sheepishly reminds them that her own day revolved around a product pitch aimed at older women that she’s certain impressed the boss and will reinvigorate the company, aptly called Swan. Daughter Bridget (Molly Ranson) reports that she’s searching for a classic male monologue to present at a school audition because “everyone does Ophelia” and she wants to change the world.

“I’m the European Ambassador for Swan Beauty!,” Linda says, I think without irony. “What about following in my footsteps? I’m making a better world for you girls to grow up in.”

Janie Dee
Janie Dee

It probably goes without saying that this high-gloss façade quickly cracks and slowly, but inevitably, crumbles: The boss, Dave (John C. Vennema), who’s also her mentor, chooses a more youth-inclusive pitch from Amy (Molly Griggs), the hotshot new hire half Linda’s age. Alice (Jennifer Ikeda), her 25-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage has yet to recover from an online slut-shaming episode in high school and has hidden herself in a skunk costume to make herself “invisible” and to hide her self-inflicted wounds. (She’s so invisible in her own home that no one seems to notice when she takes a chef’s knife up to her room.)

As for husband Neil (Donald Sage Mackay), a school teacher and B-type personality to Linda’s A, it’s only a matter of time before his transgression is revealed in the most humiliating possible way for Linda. Skinner stacks the deck against Linda so thoroughly that her inevitable – and barely credible – breakdown at a Swan event may strike some as just deserts for a character whose attributes include neither humility nor empathy. That of course may be precisely the playwright’s point: Would we be more sympathetically inclined if Linda were a successful man cut down so utterly?

The play has been spiffily mounted, with a detailed set by Walt Spangler that revolves from home to office so frequently it sometimes seems, like Linda herself, just to be showing off (Jason Lyons’ sharp lighting boosts the effect). The cast, which includes Maurice Jones as a nonsense-spouting office temptation for Linda, and Meghann Fahy as – uh oh – the singer in Neil’s garage band) couldn’t be better, and Dee, despite some miscues at the performance I saw, powers through the play with appealing élan in Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s stylish clothes.

In the closing scene, Skinner plays the nostalgia card, taking us back to Linda’s first triumphant burst through the glass ceiling. It shouldn’t surprise us that one consequence of such breakthroughs is a shower of fine, blood-letting shards.

Speaking of feeling as though I’ve been here before: David Mamet’s latest provocation, The Penitent, concerns a psychiatrist who refuses to testify on behalf of a gay patient accused of murdering 10 people in a shooting spree. This brief sketch (it’s 80 minutes including an unnecessary intermission) is a series of cat-and-mouse dialogues between the shrink, Charles (Chris Bauer) and his wife, Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon, the playwright’s wife), his lawyer, Richard (Jordan Lage) and the patient’s lawyer (Lawrence Gilliard).

Rebecca Pidgeon and Chris Bauer in "The Penitent."
Rebecca Pidgeon and Chris Bauer in “The Penitent.” Doug Hamilton

In the aftermath of the killings, Charles apparently has undergone some kind of religious awakening that has him closely reading the Torah. This may (or may not) have something to do with his sudden reluctance to testify on behalf of a patient (something, the killer’s attorney points out, he never before has  declined to do). He also has been misquoted in a newspaper account that had him declaring homosexuality an aberration, when he actually called it an “adaptation.” (On this there may be a semantic difference but not, I think, a political one.)

The attorney deposes Charles on matters of Biblical justice — we can hear the quote from Leviticus about the death penalty for homosexual love coming a mile away — and interpretation, and they both seem well-versed (suddenly we’re in Inherit The Wind territory). It’s intermittently sparky writing but ultimately lazy drama, with an ending that’s less a surprise twist than a playwright’s admission that even he’s too bored to go on.

At the invaluable Signature Theatre, Will Eno’s Wakey,Wakey, which struck me as indebted equally to two Irishmen, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. The character’s name is Guy, he is wheel-chair bound some of the time and assisted by a sympathetic attendant named Lisa (January Lavoy), and his subjects are death, existence and the meaning of life. This near monologue is delivered with exquisite, deliberate conviction by Michael Emerson (ABC’s The Practice and Lost, and CBS’ Person Of Interest) in a voice at once quizzical and confessional, an irresistible combination. Big ones, these questions, though delivered with a kind of innocence Beckett mostly abjured but that Joyce could take delight in…Also at the Signature is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Everybody, this gifted and uncategorizable playwright’s spin on Everyman. And spin it is, with the 10 actors being assigned roles according to a lottery near the beginning of each performance. They are great company. The show, on the other hand, is sophomoric nonsense and quickly wears out its welcome. My own mind wandered to Salzburg, where a new interpretation of the 15th-century fable is performed each summer under the hot hot Austrian sun.

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