Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 12, 2010
A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet. Directed by Neil Pepe. Scenic design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Laura Bauer. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Wig design by Charles LaPointe. Fight choreography by J. David Brimmer. Cast: Patrick Stewart, T.R. Knight.
The former question is best answered with a "sort of" and the latter with "because it's there." Insanity-inducing repertory seasons, in which tiny companies play myriad roles in a questionable variety of plays, may not be as much a part of our consciousness as they were when this play premiered, but we can still grasp the notion of theatre as the ultimate hard-knock life. It really is, as the old saying goes, the kind of thing you should do only if you can't do anything else. Such desperation, properly managed, can be the source of unerring comedy.
With a master like Mamet, who's not afraid to caress the skin of a subject with one hand and flay it off with a knife hidden in the other, you never have to worry about the jokes not being set up. And when you have stars like Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight, and a director like Neil Pepe, bringing it all to life, you have every reason to believe you're in the company of people who really know how to knock them away at light speed.
But satisfaction, like everything else, comes in degrees, and as well executed as this play and production often are, the effect is not equivalent to a top-flight Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow, or Race that reveals Mamet at his caustic, unpredictable best. In fact, were it not for the "caustic love letter" angle, this would be a dangerously slight evening. And even with it intact, it's almost a stretch to even consider this a play in the traditional sense.
Luckily for us, because they're in a repertory company, they do a lot of plays. So A Life in the Theatre itself not-so-gradually becomes about doing Samuel Beckett one night, a hospital drama the next, and an adaptation of Les Miserables on Saturday afternoon, complete with all the missed cues, wardrobe malfunctions, and incompetent costars such rapid-fire stagings entail. Of course, Mamet has no shortage of fun with scenic disasters, horrific accents (Knight, in particular, is master of a gleefully over-the-top mock-English awfulness), and second-rate plays, all hallmarks of this unique universe.
What doesn't occur is any real fusion between the shows themselves and the duo shackled into performing them. Robert and John are doing their jobs and, as in real life, the relationship between their work and their real states of mind is usually only tangential. What you absorb from watching their interplay, with each other and with their increasingly demoralizing performance schedule, is entirely dependent on how much you enjoy theatrical self implosion a la Noises Off, and whether the actors are capable of withstanding the lethal force with which Mamet deploys it.
Knight has no problem whatsoever, volleying John's ridiculous lines and even more bewildering speech patterns with a fierce conviction that proves he, like his character, is developing what could well be an amazing career. Not that Knight needs it: He's best known for his stint on TV's Grey's Anatomy, but has delivered memorable performances onstage in Off-Broadway works like Boy and Scattergood, and on Broadway in Noises Off and Tartuffe. And he's far more dynamic live than on the screen, wielding a flighty impetuousness and unerring comic timing that lead him to land every laugh but also show how the maddening experience is slowly but surely turning John into a more complete actor and man.
Stewart, however, is less ideally cast. There's no escaping his Shakespearean vocal and emotional range, but such weaponry is overkill in a play that demands rapid, nimble parries. Robert and Stewart are so indistinguishable here that you can't really tell which one thinks he's slumming, though neither should. Plus, the comic sting of Mamet's dialogue does not sit easily on Stewart's tongue — he often wants to guide or force it into shape, rather than let it emerge effortlessly into its final pointed and comic shape. It's as if he believes each line must be chewed on rather than spat out, and the extra half seconds he spends thinking about what he's going to say and how torpedoes the work's elemental rhythms. Yes, "Mamet lite" is still Mamet, and must be treated as such.
Otherwise, the color and pacing are exactly right, with Pepe never letting you catch your breath during or between scenes (there are over two dozen, some of which are only seconds long) and scenic design Santo Loquasto, costume designer Laura Bauer, and lighting design Kenneth Posner creating a deliciously awful anything-can-happen atmosphere upon the unknown theatre company's loudly creaking boards. You know you're in good hands when a production makes you so happy about feeling like you're in the wrong ones.
That sense of comfort is what elevates this show slightly above its typical junk-food-theatre aspirations, even if it's not enough to convince you that you're ever in the presence of a great play. It's a lark, fun and forgettable, if one that reminds you both why the "fabulous invalid" is forever dying and yet forever young, and why those who care enough about it to devote their lives to it will always transcend the trash they may have to endure. If only more plays said nothing as well as A Life in the Theatre does.