David Mamet's 1977 A Life in the Theatre follows two members of a repertory theatre company, one a seasoned veteran, the other a newcomer on the rise. Through their developing relationship on-stage and off, the play explores themes of reality, illusion, and inter-generational communication.
The discrepancy in the characters' experience was reflected in the actors' capabilities. Lawrence Merritt, with decades of professional stage work, perfectly embodied the aging actor Robert. He manages to make Mamet's poetic sentences sound organic. He brought honest passion to Robert's early lectures to John on "etiquette" and "fitness" and touching dignity to his drunken pathos later in the play. Without unnecessary pushing, he portrayed the natural dramatic flair appropriate to a life lived mostly on stage.
As the ingénue John, Tim Loftus's attractiveness and energy couldn't make up for his lack of experience. Faced with difficult and abrupt dialogue (for the first half of the play he mostly utters monosyllables like "yes" and "oh"), Loftus sometimes seemed to force his emotional reactions. As a result, the chemistry between the actors never really ignited, leaving the backstage scenes somewhat flat.
Also missing from this production was rhythm. The exchange between the two characters was too slow and strained to be amusing patter. The 26 short scenes were broken up by extended sequences of the actors changing costumes. Nothing seemed to be illustrated by these costume changes that justified taking up what seems like almost half of the production's 90-minute running time.
The pace, and the overall enjoyment level, picked up during the plays within the play. John and Robert's repertoire ranges from pseudo-Chekhov, complete with bizarre accents, to overblown military melodrama. Their desperate responses to common theatrical disasters such as uncooperative props and forgotten lines were hilarious. The onstage scenes also provided insightful commentary to the action backstage. Jesse Jou and Robby Cakoyanis performed their on and off-stage roles as stage managers efficiently, and Cakoyanis provided one of the play's funniest moments as a human prop left on stage by the quarrelling actors.
David Korins jam-packed the set with theatrical paraphernalia, including sundry masks, wigs, and costume pieces, which spilled into the audience. The stage within a stage was cleverly presented. Ben Stanton's lighting was effective and unobtrusive, but a radio blaring jazz throughout some scenes distracted rather than added to the action. Tom Claypool provided inventive costumes for the characters' myriad roles, which included pirates, soldiers, and surgeons.
"These moments make it all worthwhile," Robert said as he accepted an award during the play's final scene. The award ceremony was only in his imagination, as is most of a theatrical life, and perhaps, this play suggests, much of life in general. Merritt's forceful but sincere delivery of this and all his lines made this production, despite its flaws, worthwhile.
Lighting: 2/Sound: 1
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Copyright 2003 Brittney Jensen