Friday, November 26, 2010

Theater Review: A Life in the Theatre

The two actors who make up the entire cast of the hilariously innovative revival of David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre (at New York’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre) are, to borrow from Neil Simon, an odd couple. Robert (Patrick Stewart) is an old, ripened professional; John (T.R. Knight) is young and raw.
The action, under the astute direction of Mamet veteran Neil Pepe, takes place in a backstage dressing room and on a platform stage, both splendidly designed by Santo Loquasto and effectively lighted by Kenneth Posner. At the start of the play, the men are discussing a performance that has just ended. They comment on “the intelligent house,” but Robert complains about the leading lady: “That she should be allowed to live,” he says, “and to parade around the stage...and be paid for it!” And when the seasoned actor compliments the younger man’s “brilliant performance,” it’s apparent that Robert wants John to return the favor. Mamet’s writing here, as always, paradoxically combines the refined with the colloquial. And the comic timing of the actors is on the mark.

The scenes alternate between performances on stage in a repertory theatre and time spent backstage in the dressing room, where the two actors share personal stories and Robert puts on airs in order to impress and win over the young man. However, the comedy picks up speed and is most enjoyable when the two men are performing on a stage within the stage in a series of deliberately unrelated vaudeville sketches for what we’re led to believe is an audience out there in the dark.

Laura Bauer has provided a splendid array of costumes that are suitable for on-the-spot changes, and the quirky, short vignettes are, for the most part, hilarious. One, set during the French Revolution, is interrupted when a whirling fan constantly causes a flapping flag to cover Robert’s face; in another, it becomes impossible to light a cigar with a malfunctioning lighter; and a playlet shows Robert nervously maneuvering but still managing to perform with his zipper undone. But the most humorous skit is the one in which the two actors, playing doctors, stand behind a covered form on a hospital operating table. “What’s that near his spleen? A curious growth near his spleen?” “What?” asks Robert. And John asks the question again, with clenched teeth and far more emphasis. “No, I think not. I think you cannot see a growth near his spleen for some time yet,” Robert says. “So would you would you get me, please, give me a reading on his vital statements. Uh, functions? Would you do that one thing for me, please?” “We’ve done that one, Robert,” John whispers, and he storms offstage, leaving Robert to fend for himself.

At the play’s beginning, it’s obvious that Robert is the mentor and John is the apprentice. The older man, however, begins gradually to lose his dominance, and there are hints that teacher and student are beginning to reverse roles. Although the young man is certainly showing signs that he is outgrowing the older actor, he is never boastful or defiant. However, we can’t miss the fact that John no longer allows Robert to borrow his makeup brushes, and John has abruptly stopped lighting the older man’s cigarettes.

When it finally becomes apparent that John has learned all he needs to learn from Robert and that, in fact, the young actor is no longer interested in listening to his mentor’s blustering, Robert decides to let go. “Each to his own home,” he says sadly on the darkened stage. And the line reverberates in our memories long after we’ve left the theatre.