David Mamet's 1977 play A Life in the Theatre has been called a "valentine to the theater," and a "love letter to actors." Mamet knows from whence he writes, having cut his theatrical teeth as director and playwright on various stages in his native Chicago. His present status as a Broadway darling is undisputed; the last few years have seen star-studded productions of his plays Race and November, as well as major revivals of Oleanna, American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Speed-the-Plow. He has created a distinctive writing style that is taut and incisive. So why does this production feel so flabby, generic and false? And why does this "valentine" come off more like a series of cheap shots at actors?
The play follows two thespians, Robert (Patrick Stewart) and John (T.R. Knight) through a season of plays at what is evidently a regional repertory company. Never mind that you can count on one hand the number of such companies in this country; we accept that Mamet is evoking an "Everytheatre." What I can't reconcile, however, is the consistent amateurishness of the shows in which the two (supposedly professional) actors perform. The tone of these shows-within-a-show is so decidedly "community theater" that the play becomes a sort of watered-down "Waiting for Guffman," in which the characters' pretensions and delusions are milked for laughs.
Hence, Knight's affected British accent in the J.B. Priestley-like melodrama recalls a Monty Python comic cliché. And Stewart's blustery but bland speech atop the barricade in a Les Miz-ish epic is punctuated by the stale gag of his wig falling off. Entrances are missed, lines forgotten, scenery falls apart, and there are "wardrobe malfunctions." The joke wears thin fast, especially as the backstage scenes give little insight into the two men's relationship beyond petty squabbles and gratuitous mutual back-slapping.
People I know who saw the original New York production at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel) speak of it with an affectionate reverence. Maybe this delicate play was never meant for a thousand-plus-seat Broadway house. If I'd been closer to the stage I might have appreciated the nuances more; the people laughing and then giving the play the obligatory standing ovation were all in the first few rows. Where I was sitting near the back of the orchestra, there was a collective yawn.
Both actors, though famous from TV, have substantial theater credits. Stewart, with his sonorous voice and effortless charisma, would seem to be an ideal choice for the old pro Robert. But the part also requires shadings of neediness and sexual ambiguity that Stewart doesn't adequately render. I also think that the choice to play Robert as a Brit hampers Stewart's ability to establish the needed rapport with his co-star, and with his American audience. Knight is an appealing and energetic young actor, but the undercurrent of steely ambition in John doesn't come across sufficiently in his interpretation. Some (dis)credit for all this must also go to director Neil Pepe. One can only wish that he had infused this production with some of the zest and zing he gave the recent Broadway revival of Speed-the-Plow.
All that said, it's possible that I am not the ideal audience for this play. Having spent the past 28 of my 51 years as an actor in the professional theater, I may be taking the whole thing too literally. If you're a "civilian" and curious about the decidedly un-glamorous life behind the stage door and the red velvet curtain (or a fan of Star Trek or Grey's Anatomy) by all means go see A Life in the Theatre. Just take it all with a big grain of salt. And sit down front.
(A Life in the Theatre plays at the Schoelfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue, through January 2, 2010. Performances are Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2PM and 7PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $76.50-$121.50 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. Use discount code ALBBX13 for $47-$74 tickets, through 12/5/10 only. For more show info visit alifeinthetheatre.com.)