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A Life in the Theatre
by Laura Hitchcock
"These moments make it all worthwhile", says Hal Holbrook as Robert, the aging actor, in the final scene of David Mamet's two-hander, A Life in the Theatre. This 90-minute collection of moments written when Mamet was only 30, has the characteristics of his early concentration on the distances in intimate relationships, the Pinteresque influence, the minimalism that gives the impression of skating on thin ice beneath which lie mysterious depths, even though we rarely get a glimpse of them. Even at 30, he showed an instinct for humor and pace.
Some have found the play an unabsorbing series of vignettes but close attention has its rewards and in the hands of Holbrook and Rick Stear as his young colleague, John, they are considerable.
The play is set in a theatre where the actors play various roles on stage. Backstage in their dressing room we see them as mentor and disciple, the lonely aging man and the envied rising star. They are enemies, friends and, basically, the universal parent-child archetype. If Robert enjoys his declamatory lessons on the value of aesthetic vocal sound and the dangers of style, he finds John welcome, if perfunctory, as the caregiver who spots the make-up behind his colleague's ear or fixes his zipper.
Mamet finds sly lessons in the plays within the play. Scene 11, Chekhovian in nature, contains the whole arc of a young man's life Robert's analysis of The Famous Lifeboat Scene in which two adrift sailors anticipate rain parodies in-depth critical and directorial analyses of many simply-written plays, includingMamet's own.
The young Mamet has to poke fun at his dedication to the spirit of humanity by giving it to Robert in a to-the-barricades scene. Robert tries to impart his feelings about the etiquette of the closed society of The Theatre and instructing the next generation by the quality of actions.
The callow John doesn't seem to take much in, but he works hard on his own. When he practices a monologue alone on stage he discovers Robert, unable to leave, weeping in the wings, like a father who can't let go.
Robert is shown as needy, possessive, forgetful, alcoholic. John, at this stage, is mainly self-centered and upwardly mobile. In the last scene, John borrows $20 from the older man. One hopes he remembers Robert's unfailing generosity when it's his turn.
Spear has the look of a star in the making but very little opportunity to show an actor's range or the vocal sound his mentor has demonstrated. As written, his role is just a shield for Robert to bounce off. In lesser hands, Robert could be a pretentious prig but Holbrook's performance is so firmly grounded in wry humor, idealism and pain that even Robert's petty moments are infallible. A great actor plays one who has given his life to the theatre.
Director Michael Michetti has improved on Mamet's dryly caustic lines with some wonderful sight gags of his own: phones that don't ring and cigars that don't light, as well as letting us in on backstage life when we see a wardrobe girl with a miner's light attached adjusting an actor's costume in the dark.
The excellent scenic design by Gary Wissmann also includes a lot of theatrical values and Michael Gilliam's lighting design works the magic that enables the actors to execute their myriad costume changes.
Editor's Note: Check out our backgrounder on DavidMamet.