It concerns the relationship of Robert, an aging actor on his way down, and John, a young one on the rise, as they rub shoulders, either massaging each other’s egos or rubbing them wrong. The action unfolds onstage (during or after a play), in the wings, backstage, and most often in a shared dressing room. It is, as I wrote at the time, “a compendium of all the timeless absurdities of the theater,” to which I add that Mamet makes the thespian pair out to be thorough meatheads.
The dialogue is awash in platitudes proffered as profundities, statements promptly and needlessly repeated identically or nearly, awkward or portentous pauses, and lines that are mere superfluous monosyllables or even less: “Mmm,” now and then with something added, occurs 35 times.
You sense, in many of the characters’ stumblings and lacunae, the desperate maneuvers of a playwright playing for time -- anything to stretch the duration to the 90 minutes necessary to qualify as a full play. Consider the following:
John: I liked your scene.
Robert: You did?
Robert: Which scene?
John: The courtroom.
Robert: You liked that?
Robert: I felt it was off tonight.
John: You didn’t.
John: It wasn’t off to me.
John: It did not seem off to me.
Robert: I felt that it was off.
John: If you were off you didn’t show it.
This outnaturals naturalism and turns it into mannerism. It also shows that Mamet wouldn’t exist had there not been for Harold Pinter, on whom, for better or worse, he modeled himself.
Yet behind the Pinter dialogue there almost always lurks a mystery or menace or other hidden purpose, whereas in Mamet, so often, there is only the obvious, in this case histrionics and insecurity.
What is sorely lacking is a plot or character development, and certainly affection for the hapless actors which might enlist our empathy. What action there is mostly involves stagehands moving scenery around, so much so, and so visibly, that I wondered whether they shouldn’t be listed as cast.
Stewart is the least charismatic of actors, although that makes him just right for Robert. No young actor capable of some brashness and apple-polishing can go wrong with John, and neither does Knight. Neil Pepe’s direction -- like Santo Loquasto’s scenery, Laura Bauer’s costumes and Kenneth Posner’s lighting -- supplies the necessaries proficiently, and there are some amusing wigs by Charles LaPointe for the kidded plays- within-the-play.
The title, “A Life in the Theatre,” is meant to be ironic about this kind of life. I doubt whether the irony about this kind of theater was also intended.
At the Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St. Information: +1- 212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: **
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(John Simon is the New York drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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