Theater People Can Be Tedious

Written by Mark Peikert on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

About 30 minutes into the 90
minutes of A Life in the Theatre—David
Mamet’s comic look at two actors over the course of several appearances in
plays together—I turned to my companion and whispered, “Who are they, the
Lunts?” Mamet’s characters seem to be perpetually performing together, like the
fabled husband-and-wife team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. About 10 minutes
afterward, I finally soothed myself by deciding that these were simply
performers at a prestigious regional theater. There was just no other way I
could continue to watch the show.

A two-hander that feels far
slighter than it should on a Broadway stage (one assumes that the decision to
mount it on the Great White Way is a direct result of casting Patrick Stewart
as aging, hammy actor Robert), A Life in
the Theatre
is a very funny, mildly disjointed affair that washes the taste
of Mamet’s Race right out of
theater-goers’ mouths. Over the course of multiple scenes and several punishing
costume changes, Robert and his younger co-star John (my Playbill swears that
T.R. Knight plays John, but only his fabulous costumes, from Laura Bauer, left
an impression) fawn over one another, fight, argue, rehearse, gossip and
somehow always manage to wreak havoc during their performances.

That’s the other problem
with A Life in the Theatre: These two
are truly bad actors. John is an over-emphatic disaster in the brief glimpse of
a war drama we’re treated to; Robert is constantly fumbling over props and
wigs. There’s no way either of them could possibly remain employed as
consistently as they seem to be, and yet there they are, now in a Russian
melodrama, then in a drawing room drama. The design team has done a superlative
job of conjuring up a dozen different plays, plus various backstage spaces (the
sight of Stewart, freshly sore from attempting to plié at the barre, glowering at Knight’s limberness is a wicked
delight); director Neil Pepe, who gave us the best Mamet revival in recent
years with Speed-the-Plow, keeps the
show going at a crisp pace; and Stewart—almost too sexy for the role—is so
adept at conjuring up onstage mayhem that the wispy, one-joke play starts to
feel like a less ambitious Noises Off!.
But then Mamet turns maudlin about the theater, and the show starts to feel
like a slog.

Stewart and Knight do their best with the slower passages, but there’s only so
much life they can inject into extended segment involving John desperately
wanting to recite lines to an empty theater while Robert, lonely in his
dedication to the theater, jabbers at him from the wings. But Mamet’s obvious
affection for the foibles and fables of theater people (along with Stewart’s
and Knight’s) still shines through, even as the situations he creates are
increasingly implausible. A life in the theater, as messy and heartbreaking as
it can be, is still magical enough to draw hundreds of hungry hopefuls to New
York City each year. And though it may not have been Mamet’s intention, what A Life in the Theatre proves is that if
these two characters can eke out a living doing it, so can those unknowns.

A Life in the Theatre

Through Jan. 2, Schoenfeld
Theatre, 236 W. 45th St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.), 212-239-6200;