A tame and lackluster David Mamet? For audiences use to his gritty landscaped and expletive-filled productions such as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, the revival of A Life in the Theatre is downright civilized.
The two character play revolves around Robert, the aged actor, played wonderfully by Patrick Stewart; and the younger actor, John, played with buoyant enthusiasm by T.R. Knight. The thrust of A Life in the Theatre is the relationship between the two thespians. Robert, subtlety and at times indirectly, begins to impart nuggets of advice from his years of experience in the theater to the youthful, unseasoned John. Over the course of the one and one-half hour intermission-less show the bond between Robert and John strengthens, but then takes a new direction as John becomes more confident with his acting skills and place in the theater. Other opportunities begin to come his way and, consequently, their relationship flip flops as Robert begins to languish in John’s shadow.
The problem with A Life in the Theatre, and there are many, begins with the chemistry, or lack thereof, between Patrick Stewart’s Robert and T.R. Knight’s John. While both men are fine actors, these are not meaty roles they can sink their teeth into. Their evolving relationship never materializes into anything we care about. The emotional connection with the audience is non-existent. T.R. Knight is too self-assured right from the start so the equilibrium between the two is never off-balance.
The play is presented as a series of short, sometimes very short, blackouts. Some of the vignettes are ten minutes in length while others are just a minute or two (I think I clocked on scene at 30 seconds). I lost count after 12 or so even though I did read somewhere there are 26 blackouts. A scene would end, the stage crew would either remove or push into place some scant scenery, the two actors would return to the stage, and the process would repeat itself. This device fractured the flow of the production, never allowing it to find its rhythm. Director Neil Pepe does a fine job orchestrating the comings and goings on stage, but Mamet’s script doesn’t allow him to do any more or less.
A Life in the Theatre is more a valentine to the theatrical world. There is a lot of dressing up in the show—each man gets to try on an assortment of costumes, wigs, and facial hair, as well as employ a number of accents throughout the production. But with its paper thin quality, lack of chemistry, and fragmentary structure, A Life in the Theatre is one theater class you can skip.