A Life in the Theatre makes stage acting seem like writing: You throw your soul into the black and uncaring void until you go crazy. At least actors can see the audience, out there in the dark. A writer has to assume people are picking up the paper. Maybe I’m just being dramatic.
In either case, the production of this early work by David Mamet achieves actor-
When they aren’t screwing up their lines and generally hamming it up, thespians Robert and John are backstage, talking shop. The elder Robert counsels relative newcomer John about the joys and pitfalls of theater.
Sparkly eyed John, played by Paul Hunton, at first gladly accepts the mentorship of the animated Robert, played by Peter Kierst. Robert is a man who lives for acting and is therefore never not acting. Theater is everything to Robert, to such an extent that he actually has no other life. (At one point he is drunk in the back of the theater, telling an irritated John he is going home. But he never does; he is home.)
Robert’s devotion to his craft and need to espouse it creates animosity in John, who soon grows weary of Robert’s overzealous mentorship and invasion into his personal affairs.
Hunton turns in a workable, if not understated, John. His irritation grows convincingly throughout, though he never quite explodes. The play is set in an unnamed Midwestern repertory theater, and I didn’t sense any Midwestern qualities in John's manner or voice. Overall, the character comes across as a little flat.
Of course, it’s easy to be overshadowed by Kierst’s over-the-top Robert, a man so ensconced in being an “actor” that he ceases to be a human. He's an irritating thespian, like a high school drama kid conforming to his preconceived notion of what an actor is. Robert speaks in highly affected tones, throws his voice, is animated with his hands, wears a scarf. And that’s off stage.
He's an irritating thespian, like a high school drama kid conforming to his preconceived notion of what an actor is.
Kierst extends the pathology of an overgrown drama kid to new depths; I believed his neurosis, particularly when the younger John carelessly tosses a makeup towel on the floor. Robert picks it up with the mechanical response of an obsessive compulsive cleaning the fake germs off his hands. It's the first indication that this man is crazy.
Speaking of mechanical response, the set hands are put to good use here. Instead of blacking out the stage for set changes, they come out and do it with the lights on, dressed in period clothes (this production is set in the early 1960s, though the original script was written and set in 1977), becoming part of the action. As Robert becomes increasingly out of whack, the machinelike movements of the set hands make the theater world cold and indifferent to his plight. It will continue with or without him.
Mamet’s style shows up in Theatre, albeit in a nascent form. I went out after seeing this play and picked up a copy of Glengarry Glen Ross, known in some circles as Death of a Fucking Salesman because of its pervasive use of my favorite word. A Life in the Theatre gave me a taste for Mamet and left me hungry for more.
Unlike some of the playwright’s other works, no one gets brained with a baseball bat in Theatre. These are theater people, not trigger-happy federal agents or crooked real estate salesmen. But one only needs to hear the characters speak to instantly recognize the Mamet within.
There’s something to be said for watching Kevin Costner (Eliot Ness in Untouchables, for which Mamet wrote the screenplay) throw a guy off the roof of a federal courthouse, but I had a great time watching an old actor fall to pieces.