A Life in the Theatre
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 13, 2010
I probably had more fun than I've ever had at a David Mamet play at A Life in the Theatre. This comedy, first seen off-Broadway in 1977, does not trade in Mamet's signature subject of the angsts and vagaries of underachieving white men in America, and the oft-parodied profanity-laden staccato dialogue is absent as well. Instead, this is a swift, dear, and surprisingly gentle portrait of two actors—one older and past his prime, the other much younger and on the rise—set entirely within the world that contains and defines them, which is to say in various locations in a theatre (or perhaps various theatres; the author is deliberately cloudy on that point). As acted by Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight, it is a delightful entertainment.
It is also, though, a very slight one: though a throughline is discernible and some deeper themes are hinted at, A Life in the Theatre feels fundamentally like a series of blackout skits, mostly very funny and mostly affectionate jibes at the ways and means of actors. In the first scene, Stewart conveys lots of information about his character, Robert: a man afraid of aging, afraid to be alone, endlessly insecure and yet utterly at home on stage. I kept longing for more development of Robert and of John, the younger actor portrayed by Knight. But very little is provided by the playwright.
Instead, we see the two in a variety of circumstances. They're together in the dressing room, applying makeup or repairing costumes, in earnest discussion or bitter battle. Or they're on stage, performing bits from a passel of preposterous plays that Mamet must have enjoyed devising: a pair of heavily accented sailors adrift on a broken boat, or adversaries vying for the same woman, or a Chekhovian very old man and one of his descendents. We see them cope (or fail to cope) with stagehands, set pieces that fall apart, sound cues that don't happen on time, and props that misbehave. We watch them rehearse, exercise at a ballet barre, chit-chat near the stage door. We're let into their heads and learn about their dreams and anxieties. But Mamet never takes us anywhere deep. The material is smart and amusing, but almost always at the level of a well-crafted TV show sketch (think The Carol Burnett Show, a mainstay of the period when this was written).
It is, nevertheless, a great pleasure to watch Stewart and Knight go at this material, which despite its thinness offers them plenty of ripe opportunities. The evening is tilted more heavily toward Stewart's character, and he does indeed dominate the show with a performance filled with dialect and shtick and business that reminded me of the kind of bravura turn that Maggie Smith gave in Lettice and Lovage a couple of decades back. Stewart is a consummate pro (and maybe just a bit of a ham as well, in a good way); I didn't feel a lot of give-and-take with the audience in his work, but rather an actor going the distance for the pure personal satisfaction of hitting every possible mark. Knight absolutely holds his own, but his character has fewer opportunities.
Neil Pepe's directorial concept is pretty grand, and he's gotten Santo Loquasto to provide more set changes and Laura Bauer more costume pieces that your average Metropolitan Opera production. This has the twin effects of slowing the show down constantly (so that a new thingamajig can be rolled onto the stage and Stewart and Knight can change into yet another witty set of outfits) and enlivening the proceedings enormously. Loquasto's reverse-perspective on-stage scenes, offering a view of the audience from the actor's point of view, are especially captivating.
Is Robert the protagonist of this play, or is John? It seemed to me that the answer is neither, which may be why A Life in the Theatre is ultimately such a trivial, if constantly engaging, pursuit.