Broadway Reviews

A Life in the Theatre

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.
Theatre: Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermissions
Audience: May be inappropriate for 9 and under. Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
Ticket prices: $76.50 $251.50
Tickets: Telecharge

A Life in the Theatre
T.R. Knight and Patrick Stewart.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Even when he gets all sentimental and squishy, David Mamet still has an edge. Take, for example, his 1977 play A Life in the Theatre, which is now making its Broadway bow at the Gerald Schoenfeld. Though it lives up to its title as a retrospective in the making about the unsteady romance of the stage, it's even more notable for inspiring burning questions like "Good lord, do people actually do this?" and "Good lord, why do people do this?"

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.

A Life in the Theatre
Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Certainly, Robert (Stewart) and John (Knight) aren't characters as we usually think of them. You don't get to know much about who they are as people; they're professionals who exist only while they're positioned in the spotlight's glow. You may discern a few facts about these creatures of the stage Robert has been slogging away at this career for an indeterminate number of decades, John is a relative newcomer; their devotion to their work makes them as close as they can be to friends without sharing each other's lives but their relationship exists in no tangible way outside the plays they perform.

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.


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