The institutions David Mamet skewers in his new play, “The Penitent” — religion, the press, and the legal system — are all modern in their form. Yet, Chris Bauer, who has the starring role, said last week that the inherent conflicts in the play derive from classical sources.
“At the end of the day, it’s about people struggling with their sense of right and wrong as individuals, tracing their conscience and abiding their conscience, thrown together in a world where people have different views of conscience,” he said. “The characters’ struggle for solutions run into the obstacles of their agendas and other people’s agendas. That describes any drama since the Greeks.”
The play is being presented by the Atlantic Theater Company in Manhattan. It opened Monday after previews and will run through March 19.
Mr. Bauer, a part-time resident of Sag Harbor, is originating the role of Charles, a psychiatrist in a time of crisis. His patient has committed multiple homicides, and his defense lawyers want Charles to testify on his behalf. He says he is reluctant, based on his professional oath and reinforced by his rediscovery of religion. In an effort to coerce him, the defendant, who is gay, accuses him of prejudice against gay people.
Further complicating matters, a newspaper misprints the title of one of Charles’s old academic papers, changing it from “Homosexuality as an Adaptation” to “Homosexuality as an Aberration.” The gaffe leads his friends and associates to ostracize him and his wife. The pressure builds as his attorney suggests simple, yet morally repugnant, solutions to the problems, but Charles rejects them.
Although it feels tied to this particular time in history, Mr. Bauer explained that this was a story the playwright “was chipping away at for a while and then was at it again in the last several months. But the ideas behind it date further back from that.”
This is not Mr. Bauer’s first time tackling the “athletic technical demands” of a Mamet play. He has previously played key roles in “Race” in Los Angeles and “Romance” at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
That experience was helpful in “providing a tool kit . . . to get you through the play in the most efficient way,” he said, but “every piece of work demands starting with a clean slate and hoping you find your way through.”
At least no interpretation is necessary. “David’s aesthetic is really explicit; there are no multiple points of view” to consider. “On the page, there are possibilities and many ways through, but it’s a like a well-crafted car that should be driven a certain way. It’s better not to ignore the consistent technical groove. The formula is what is required.”
Mr. Bauer said that the only way to tell his story “and to suggest the emotional atmosphere, the emotional urgency, is to do it a certain way. If you don’t, you feel it.”
There is no room for improvising. “You have to know the text front and back, absolutely, especially with his plays,” he said. “It’s trite to say, but you do have to play it like music . . . to the degree that any ‘ums’ or ‘urs’ not on the page can’t come out of your mouth.”
The usual actorly exercises to find the character aren’t really necessary, he said. “You’re pulling a lot of the character from the text rather than imagination.” Emotion is derived from the text as well. “Embellishing a scene with deep feeling is like putting a bucket in a well; it comes up and there it is. That’s always the sign of a great play. All you have to do is be available to it, and it will give you what you need.”
There’s preparation and then more work in rehearsal. “It’s a dossier you inject everything into. You make the critical inferences and decisions, solve the problems that exist, and then take it into rehearsal, tuning in to the signal at its sharpest point,” he said. “It’s meticulous work. You will know the difference between A-plus and A-minus work.”
The production is something of a family affair. Rebecca Pidgeon, Mr. Mamet’s wife, plays Charles’s wife. Laura Bauer, Mr. Bauer’s wife, designed the costumes and has been designing wardrobe for Mr. Mamet and other theater and film productions for many years.
Regarding Ms. Pidgeon, Mr. Bauer said she makes it look easy in striking a balance between being the “point of the spear, but supporting it with humanity and an open heart. But it’s a high-wire act of composition and proportion. I’ve learned an enormous amount of technical shortcuts from her.”
Ms. Bauer, who preceded her husband in the theater company, is a veteran of more than 10 of its productions. “She has a great way of supporting the iconography of the play with specificity,” Mr. Bauer said. “She’s always got something up her sleeve: a pair of glasses or a pair of socks that catch your eye and help you realize who a character is.” It had been a while since they had worked together, and it was great to “watch her do with clothes what is part of what an actor does,” he said.
After years in Sag Harbor, the family moved to Los Angeles to support Mr. Bauer’s work as Andy Bellefleur in the HBO series “True Blood,” which ended in 2014 after seven seasons. They had first split the school year in half, staying in Sag Harbor from the fall until January and then moving to Los Angeles from January to June. In recent years, they have spent only the summer on the South Fork.
Now, Mr. Bauer is in a new HBO series, “The Deuce,” which will premiere this summer. About the rise of the pornography industry in New York City in the 1970s, it is a reunion of some of the creative team behind “The Wire,” including David Simon and George Pelecanos.
Shooting the series in New York will likely bring the family back east, which is fine by him. “My kids’ closest and deepest friendships are in Sag Harbor,” he said. The vagabond existence doesn’t bother him. “This is an actor’s life. I’m lucky I get to move to California for a job, and when that job ends I get a job in New York. It’s much better than no job.”
His children each began their lives as part of the bicoastal nexus. His son was born at St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan and his daughter at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. “We stretch our lives from one side of the country to the other. My most exotic dream is to watch all four seasons out of one window.”