Though it's called "A Life in the Theatre," it can be difficult to detect any vital signs in the sluggish Broadway revival of David Mamet's 1977 comedy.
As light on nastiness (just six F-bombs in 80 minutes) as it is on narrative, the two-hander's wispiness is amplified by director Neil Pepe's overblown and pokey production.
Told in 26 scenes -- some consisting of just a couple lines of dialogue or a sight gag -- it follows two actors at an unnamed repertory company for a season of plays.
Robert (Patrick Stewart) is a career stage thesp getting on in years, a peacocky preener whose feathers get ruffled at even a perceived slight. John (T.R. Knight) is a newbie with promise and the bouncy energy of youth.
They're seen performing scenes from shows in which they play World War I doughboys, stuffy lawyers and doctors in an operating theater (a moment that reads like a Marx Brothers movie, not a stage play).
Between these scenes, they talk (mostly about work) in their dressing room, at the gym or in the wings. Gradually there's a shift in power between the men.
"Life" wants to be a fast-flowing montage, but this one lags due to scenery and costume changes that should have been tightened -- or, better, simplified -- to keep things racing.
Stewart, a seasoned stage vet before his stint on the Starship Enterprise, skillfully plays an actor in the twilight of his glory. It's a role he did in London in 2005.
Knight, who leapt from Broadway to "Grey's Anatomy," goes from cute (his signature) to callow as John grows less receptive to his older mentor's viewpoints. Both stars do nice work, which isn't the same as setting off bright, colorful sparks.
Blame the play, in part. Despite easy laughs that arise from watching actors deal with missed cues, misfiring props and the discomfort of sharing a dressing room, the early-career Mamet's scenes and characters are shallow and shapeless. The elder actor's decline makes little impact as a result.
The cleverest moment belongs to Robert when he equates "superior theater" to a walnut -- "meaty on the inside and tight all around." Very actorspeak. Too bad this "A Life in the Theatre" comes off as pure peanuts.
“Artistic experimentation is shit ... Two actors, some lines, and an audience, that’s what I say.” So declares Robert (Patrick Stewart) to his scene partner John (T.R. Knight), invoking the Holy Trinity of playwright David Mamet — and adding, for emphasis, the master’s traditional benediction: “Fuck ‘em all.” Ah, clarity: so rare on the stage, so bracing, so invigorating ... and yet so spare, so chilly and ephemeral.
This is A Life in the Theatre, Mamet’s revived 1975 two-man comedy (though one and a half men might be a more accurate head count) about an older journeyman actor (Stewart, vital and precise), on whom the spotlight is steadily dimming, and a younger one (Grey’s Anatomy’s Knight), who’s still got that green and hungry look. Together with director Neil Pepe (Mamet’s anointed helmsman and the stopwatch behind the brisk Broadway revival of Speed the Plow), this seemingly mismatched pair make a solid team, executing Mamet’s succinct pseudo-existential riff with focused energy and crisp comic timing.
You will laugh, most likely, though perhaps not as hard as you might have had you felt a bit more of the show’s inner ache and a shade less of its slightly gluey buffoonery. The play itself is a simple little machine of superficially Pirandellan construction: We follow the actors’ backstage lives, taking regular breaks to watch them perform in a (broadly awful) play directed at the back wall, which is designed to suggest the unguessable depths of An Audience. Robert begins as mentor, but quickly goes the way of all Mamet pantaloons, from Shelly Levine on down: The more he yammers on about the Work and the Business, the faster he’s overtaken by a younger, stronger, more cipherlike rival. It’s a tricky business, casting-wise, as the more powerful actor of the pair is likely to be playing Robert — and Stewart is power, a bare bulb of theatrical incandescence. But Knight, far from being blown (or beamed) off the stage, knows his place on it and stays there. His job, as prototypical Mamet man, is to hunt for his objective. He has the big, dead eyes of an innocent predator, one who’s more dangerous than he looks. As character and actor, Knight does his office admirably, without ever exceeding its limits or even looking like he’d want to.
But then, who’d be suicidal enough to want to get between Stewart and an audience? No one gets at the tragic dignity of a powerful man in irresistible decline quite like Stewart (and here I direct your attention, without shame, not only to his work in Macbeth and The Ride Down Mount Morgan, but to his towering, tumbling, still-unequaled performance in the series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation). “Sound!” he declares, triumphantly and foolishly, “The crown prince of phenomena!” Embarking on a long and ultimately nonsensical digression about how sounds and smells emanate from the innermost self, Stewart’s Robert witlessly reveals himself a gaseous and empty person, vulnerable to the slightest pinprick. But Stewart himself is a creature of such remarkable vitality, it’s a little hard to buy him as a guy at the end of his powers.
Little of the text has been updated (though an eleven o’clock mini-logue seems to have been added for Stewart), and Pepe has abided by a core Mamet principle and directed only the text. (Mamet, in his recent book Theatre and Other Treatises, has come out as a sort of Antonin Scalia of Theater: He’s an originalist, believing the script to be complete unto itself and allergic to dramaturgy and interpretation.) The actors have responded with the rhythms of klassic komedy, which the play invites. The plays-within-the-play are all intentionally bastardized pastiches of Chekhov, Shaw, O’Neill, etc., and Mamet invites us to find acting and actors ridiculous for all the reasons we already find actors ridiculous: Look at them, men in tights at the balance beam, fussing over their “art”! Watch John try to fix Robert’s broken zipper with a safety pin — could the not-so-vaguely homoerotic competition of these greasepaint frenemies be any more obvious? And why, exactly, are the plays all so high-school awful, as written and as acted? Is theater, finally, just too effete and silly a form for David Fucking Mamet?
Troubling stuff like this comes to the fore when Life is stripped to its fundamentals. And fundamentals are, in the end, what this production is all about. Timing, holding focus, taking and ceding the stage, winners and losers, doms and subs. (Nowhere does this hit you harder than “the famous lifeboat scene,” a sort of Winslow Homer brought to life, where Stewart and Knight seesaw on a huge swinging dinghy, up and down, crudely trading bad lines in terrible dinner-theater pan-Britannia accents.) Reversals and wrestling holds are the stuff of life, according to the Mamet schema. But he’s left a lot of white space between the thrusts and parries of the text, and that space just hasn’t been colonized with a whole lot of (sorry Dave, I know you hate this phrase) Human Feeling. Is there, at bottom, anything at stake in the relationship between these two men? Do they even like each other? Mamet leaves these questions open in his script, and Pepe, a good soldier, hasn’t volunteered any theories. The actors dutifully play the text. Marks are hit, laughs are obtained on schedule and in abundance, a fine time is had by all, and if something intrinsic is missing — an aftertaste of pathos, say — you barely notice until you’re being mushed toward the exit. Perhaps that pleases the master, but it leaves us a little cold, out in the audience. We’re laughing, and then we’re leaving. Personally, I’d like a little more out of life, feigned or not.
Hardships, petty humiliations, financial strain, crushed hopes: That's what you can expect as an actor. At least that's how it is in David Mamet's "A Life in the Theatre" -- and it's a comedy.
The 1977 piece -- now being revived on Broadway under Neil Pepe's direction -- looks at two thespians' daily grind through a series of fast-paced vignettes.
It's a trifle, but one that's dished out by Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight (the puppyish George on "Grey's Anatomy"), two skilled, likable stars with a mellow chemistry and spot-on timing.
They're completely believable as Robert and John, respectively, the kind of journeymen who never graduate from supporting parts. The more experienced Robert lords it over his younger colleague in their shared dressing room, imparting hard-earned wisdom and delivering lofty speeches about the theatah. (Has there ever been a profession more prone to self-aggrandizement?)
Robert sounds so imperious that you half-expect him to be the second coming of Laurence Olivier.
And then you see him at work.
"Could you . . . perhaps . . . do less?" Robert asks his self-effacing, modest co-star. Nobody should even attempt to steal the spotlight from this well-cured ham. At least he isn't salty -- except for a few pungent expletives, Mamet dispenses with his trademark profanity.
"A Life in the Theatre" is at its funniest when introducing excerpts from the (made-up) shows Robert and John perform. The two seem to work for a middling repertory company with a penchant for boilerplate period dramas, and Mamet has a blast spoofing the genre.
To make matters worse, the plays-within-the-play are plagued with missed cues, broken props and faulty costumes.
Stewart and Knight clearly enjoy themselves, and make a very efficient tag team. It's a hoot to watch Robert try to hold onto the last shreds of his dignity in the face of theatrical adversity -- a task made harder by a slew of preposterous wigs and hats he's saddled with.
Meanwhile, the Buster Keaton-like Knight portrays John as eager to learn and ever-stoic in the face of Robert's antics, with mournful, hangdog eyes that only occasionally betray a hint of irritation.
Mamet injects a certain wistfulness toward the end, which his leads play up without succumbing to sentimentality. Robert and John's life may look like a series of indignities, but you also understand why there's nothing else they'd rather do.
The words delicate and David Mamet seldom appear in close proximity. Mr. Mamet, after all, is widely regarded as the macho man of American theater, a two-fisted dispenser of high-testosterone dialogue and ugly truths. As a playwright, he has never been a doily maker.
Except perhaps once. Mr. Mamet’s 1977 play, “A Life in the Theatre,” which opened in an ill-advised revival on Tuesday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, is mighty like a doily, a thin, lacy valentine to those who ply their trade on the stage. Treated roughly, it tends to crumble. A long-running sentimental hit at the Theater de Lys in Greenwich Village a quarter-century ago, it was surely never meant to bear the weight of Broadway.
Yet all shows, it seems, come to Broadway these days, regardless of their appropriateness to that loud and unforgiving neighborhood, if they have starry names attached. So now what is essentially a series of quick, airy black-out sketches about two actors in repertory has been scaled up for its Broadway debut. This means it has been endowed with an impressive Santo Loquasto set and, more important, a highly recognizable cast of two in Patrick Stewart and T. R. Knight. And in trying to look big, “A Life in the Theatre,” directed here by Neil Pepe, has never seemed smaller.
Mr. Mamet was the exciting young playwright du jour when “A Life in the Theatre” was first seen in New York. “American Buffalo,” his foul-mouthed drama about three hapless Chicago crooks, had opened two years earlier, in 1975, eliciting cries from critics that a bracingly original new voice had arrived. If “Life” seemed tame after the feral “Buffalo,” it was reassuring to know that beneath the bad-boy bluster, Mr. Mamet was a softie when it came to that business we call show.
Like “Buffalo” — and like other Mamet plays to come — “Life” portrays a professional relationship, and a shifting balance of power, between an aging, less-than-successful veteran and an eager, often clumsy tyro. Like most Mamet characters, Robert (Mr. Stewart) and John (Mr. Knight) are not averse to the use of four-letter words. But they are more elegantly spoken than most Mamet men, especially the older Robert. And their Oedipal clash is less brutal.
As they go through the paces of their temporarily shared life on the stage, behind the scenery and in the dressing room, the wry, observant compassion with which Mr. Mamet draws characters is more naked and less finely detailed than usual. This makes “Life” the most overtly sentimental and traditionally comic of his works.
That conventionalism is heavily underlined here, as is the sense of its characters’ being Every Man (or Every Actor) at different points in life. Mr. Stewart and Mr. Knight seem to have had difficulty in forging specific characters. It’s not that they appear ill at ease on a stage. Though each is best known for film and television work — Mr. Stewart for “X-Men” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and Mr. Knight for “Grey’s Anatomy” — they have solid theater chops. This is especially true of Mr. Stewart, whose “Tempest” and “Macbeth” were seen to fine advantage on Broadway.
Yet I had difficulty believing in Mr. Stewart as a vain, over-the-hill, lonely actor for whom theater is a religion with its own inviolable rules and rituals. Perhaps he needs a booming, heroic classical part to come into his own, but here, in relatively low gear, he seems neither as fragile nor as foolish as he needs to be. Un-self-conscious comedy is evidently not his métier.
Mr. Knight radiates the requisite youthful energy, but that’s about all that defines his John. And the brisk interplay of language that you associate with Mr. Mamet has been slowed to a lumbering, meditative pace.
At least as damaging is our impression that the relationship between the two men doesn’t evolve. A counterpoint between the irritable wistfulness of Robert — eager to impart his skill to his younger confrère — and the impatient heedlessness of John is established in the beginning, and any variation on that dichotomy is sparse. And in the scenes that find the actors in costume, in plays, they are as cartoonish as figures from Broadway satires in old television variety shows.
Admittedly, the plays-within-the-play in “Life” are pretty sophomoric by Mamet standards, class-clown parodies of various genres (Chekhov, the World War I trenches melodrama, the Maughamesque play of marital infidelity). Mr. Pepe, who did splendidly by the Broadway revival of Mr. Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow,” presents these scenes, in which props come apart and wigs fall off, as if they were out of “Noises Off,” Michael Frayn’s great farce of backstage mayhem.
But such scenes here lack the precision timing that would make them seriously funny. And the sight-gag scenery they require — to evoke a low-budget theater’s representation of a lifeboat at sea or the barricades of the French revolution — adds extra bulk to what is already ponderous.
Mr. Knight has one hilarious moment of slapstick terror when John, in the wings, thinks he has missed his cue. And when in the pseudosophisticated Maugham-like scene, the actors go up on their lines, you can sense the infectious relish with which Mr. Stewart and Mr. Knight embody a nightmare situation familiar to any performer. A trenchant, affectionate knowingness fills the stage, and it plays happily on our awareness of actors playing actors with authority.
As for a more general sense of a life in the theater as the procession of fleeting shadows that Robert describes with such ardor, this “Life in the Theatre” is too, too solid and literal-minded to summon such phantoms. “Ephemeris, ephemeris,” says Robert, toward the end. “Time passes.” In this case, very slowly.
Of the numerous David Mamet plays that have been introduced or reintroduced on Broadway in recent years, A Life in the Theatreis easily the least Mametian.
Anyone with a passing interest in modern drama recognized in those other productions the jaggedly musical, expletive-strewn dialogue that has launched a thousand imitators. Even Mamet's surprisingly tame political satire November (2008) had the requisite cynicism and potty-mouthed exchanges.
In contrast, Life has a wistful, almost nostalgic, tone and a distinct if unsentimental tenderness. And in the revival (* * * out of four) that opened Tuesday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, director Neil Pepe and stars Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight embrace those qualities fully.
Pepe, a longtime Mamet collaborator, described Life in a recent Playbill interview with the playwright as "(not only) a love letter to the theater, but also to actors." Mind you, lovable isn't the first word you'd apply to either of the two thespians who are the sole characters here. Robert, played by Stewart, is a gentleman of a certain age facing the twilight of his career, if not his vanity; John, Knight's role, is an up-and-comer who may not be as ingenuous as he seems.
The potential for a mentor/protégé relationship — and all the friction that tends to accompany such arrangements — is established in the first scene, which takes place after a performance. Life then follows Robert and John through other backstage conversations, and on stage, as they appear together in a motley assortment of shows.
The latter moments capture the troupers at their most farcically fallible. At one point, John misses his cue while fretting before an entrance, then agonizes over when and how to dive before the footlights. Robert fumbles with his lines and props to similarly hilarious effect in skits set in an operating room and during the French Revolution.
If Stewart and Knight deftly manage the broad comedy required here, their overall performances are appropriately nuanced. Stewart clearly has a grand time depicting Robert's self-image as that of a distinguished man of the the-a-tuh. But for all his witty bluster, he shows us his character's underlying vulnerability and fear, which become more transparent and moving as the play progresses.
Knight's John is at once Robert's foil and a fellow spirit: ambitious and occasionally unctuous or prickly, but also endearingly unpolished and surprisingly sensitive.
Toward the end, John, who is trying to rehearse a new role in an empty theater, suspects that Robert is hidden away, eavesdropping furiously, and is proven right. The ensuing confrontation is at once bleakly funny and ridden with pathos.
There's also a certain sweet resilience, a sense that these men do what they do — as troupers put it in A Chorus Line— for love. Life may offer nothing as maudlin as that old show tune, but seldom has Mamet revealed his heart so openly.
First you laugh your head off; then you open a vein. That's the way it usually goes whenever "A Life in the Theater," David Mamet's 1977 lethal toast to American stage actors, is revived. But the darkness descends early in Neil Pepe's staging of this backstage two-hander, which stars the stately Patrick Stewart as the veteran thespian who's seen, done and survived it all and the watchable T.R. Knight as the young actor he mentors. Although the laughs still land, the affection that softens the satire is undercut by the melancholy tone struck in the first moments of the show.
Watching Stewart ("Macbeth") take command of the gloomy backstage theater set (designed by Santo Loquasto and lighted to Stygian effect by Kenneth Posner) is enough to make you swoon. If anyone alive can embody the majestic weariness of a proud journeyman actor in the winter of his career, this hawk-faced, silver-throated thesp is a shoo-in.
So it's more than a little disconcerting to observe Robert, the seasoned trouper Stewart plays here, so quickly revealing the self-doubt and emotional uncertainty beneath his autocratic professional demeanor. Amusing as it is to watch him ensnare an impressionable young colleague with false flattery of his "brilliant" performance ("I wouldn't say it if it weren't so"), his own need for validation is all too transparent.
Given the rather obvious desperation behind these insincere platitudes, it also takes some adjustment to accept the younger thesp's willingness to be mentored by this sad old guy.
Knight, coming off five seasons on "Grey's Anatomy" (and nice work in the 2001 revival of "Noises Off"), gives a poised, surprisingly subtle perf as John, the ambitious kid who seizes the opportunity to pick up a few tricks from Robert. But since he seems all too aware of his teacher's personal and professional limitations, the trajectory of his apprenticeship is wobbly. In fact, John seems to have tuned out his mentor long before he tells him to "please shut up."
Despite getting off on the wrong emotional foot, the production recovers once these hard-working thesps begin to throw themselves into their roles for the execrable shows in the company repertory. Mamet displays malicious glee in trotting out all the old chestnuts, from the World War I battlefield play ("Those dirty bastards, they stuck him on the wire and left him there for target practice!") and the Chekhovian social drama ("If we could leave this afternoon ... if we could just call, bring the carriage round, just leave this afternoon ...") to a definitive spoof of an English shipwreck drama, performed in thick lower-class accents ("Kid, we haven't got a chance in hell. But you shouldn't let it get you down, 'cause that's what life on the sea is about").
Helmer Pepe ("Speed-the-Plow") is especially inventive when it comes to the onstage catastrophes that are the nightmare of every rep company: the broken fly zipper, the desk lighter that doesn't light, the prop phone that doesn't ring, the wig that flies off when its impassioned wearer is on the barricades in a French Revolution costumer. (Honors to Laura Bauer for the terrific costume parade and Charles LaPointe for some truly moldy-looking wigs.) Not to mention the missed cues, flubbed lines and unfortunate memory lapses.
Meanwhile, the backstage drama advances in brief scenes that catch those precise moments when tutor and pupil begin to switch roles. Both actors show canny judgment in those delicate moments, carefully but unobtrusively pacing out every incremental change in their relationship. Before you know it, John is no longer lending Robert his makeup brushes and Robert is lighting John's cigarette.
Knight is properly heartless when John decides that he has learned all he needs to know about holding an epee and is ready to move on. For his part, Stewart shows heart, as well as great technique, in allowing Robert his dignity after he realizes John is no longer listening to his impassioned bluster about the joys and responsibilities of their noble art.
But if John is unmoved by his old mentor's distress, Mamet isn't, and there's nothing sadder or sweeter than Robert's last look around the house.
David Mamet is the most American of playwrights. Not only do his snarlingly competitive characters take a zerosum view of human relationships, but they express it with words that fly through the air like bullets in search of a body.
So what could have possessed Patrick Stewart—make that Sir Patrick Stewart—to wrestle with "A Life in the Theatre," Mr. Mamet's 1977 play about a pair of actors, one old and one young, who are battling for dominance over one another? Beats me, but I'm glad it did, for Mr. Stewart's performance, strange though it may sound from time to time, is in the end both deeply comprehending and painfully touching, just like the play itself.
I can't think why it took so long for "A Life in the Theatre" to get to Broadway. It's a natural, a two-character comedy with a wrenchingly serious coda and a plum part for a first-class actor capable of convincingly portraying a tired old ham. As usual, Mr. Mamet tells us nothing about his characters beyond the words that they speak, but we are, I think, invited to suppose that Robert (Mr. Stewart) and John (T.R. Knight) are working
together in the kind of second-rate repertory company that shoves a new production onto the boards every week or two, ready or not. In many of the 26 scenes, we see Robert and John doing their best to stagger through a series of underrehearsed scripts (one of which is a cruelly clever Eugene O'Neill parody).
Elsewhere we look on as Robert tries to make John his protégé, hosing him down with gaseous lectures about the craft of theater: "To me, an ugly sound is an extension of an ugly soul. An indice of lacking aesthetic." In time, though, Robert's threadbare grand manner gives way to smoldering rage as the youngster starts to attract the kind of critical attention that Robert never got when he was John's age.
Though Robert has the best lines, the play is at least as much about John—or, to be exact, about the inexorable disillusion of a starry-eyed protégé who comes over time to see the limitations of his patron—and each scene strips another layer off Robert's carefully cultivated pretensions. In the end we see him as he is, a has-been who never was, and the spectacle is appalling to behold.
Mr. Stewart plays Robert very much in the English manner, and at first I feared that his pacing would be unidiomatically deliberate (I smiled to hear him wring five finicky syllables out of the word "specifically"). Then I
let go of my preconceptions and started watching the performance he was giving instead of the one I wanted to see, and before long I'd stopped keeping score and was enthralled. Mr. Stewart is fully alive to the complicated mixture of envy and rue that Robert feels as he watches his younger, more talented colleague take flight. Even when he's being funny—and Mr. Stewart is quite a bit better at making fun than I expected—you feel his hurt.
As for Mr. Knight, lately of "Grey's Anatomy," my guess is that he's looked closely at the 1993 made-for-TV film of "A Life in the Theatre," in which Matthew Broderick plays John, for his flat, whiny performance is too obviously Broderick-like for comfort, never quite convincing us that John has grown into the actor Robert sees. It might well pass muster in a different setting, but when you're up against an actor as good as Mr. Stewart, you have to make a much stronger impression in order to register at all.
Neil Pepe, the director, is an old Mamet hand who staged the commercially successful but unevenly cast 2008 Broadway production of "Speed-the-Plow." Here he does a quietly smart job of suggesting the hit-or-miss world of bargain-basement regional repertory theater in which Robert and John work, and he is equally good at enacting the mishaps (some of which are in the script and some of which aren't) that beset the two actors on and offstage. Santo Loquasto's quick-change set is on the nose, as are Laura Bauer's costumes.
Now that David Cromer's "Our Town" has closed, "A Life in the Theatre" is the New York show to see. I wish that Mr. Stewart had a stronger partner opposite him, but his performance is rich enough to carry the play all by itself.