THE BRITISH KNIGHT AND T. R. KNIGHT HAVE A GO AT DAVID MAMET’S TWO-HANDER
by HENRY EDWARDS
Along with "All About Eve,” “The Royal Family," "The Dresser," “Light Up the Sky,” “Room Service,” “The Torch-Bearers," “Noises Off,” "Bullets Over Broadway" and undoubtedly numerous other titles, David Mamet's aptly named two-hander, “A Life in the Theatre," attempts to reveal what actors are really like.
The genre has been so overworked even the best writer would have trouble coming up with something new, a sense of déjà vu permeates Mamet's effort which opened officially at Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theatre on Oct. 12.
Previously seen Off-Broadway in 1977 where it chalked up a 288-performance run and revived in 1992, “A Life in the Theatre” has also been seen twice on television (in 1979 and in 1993 in a production that co-starred Jack Lemmon and Matthew Broderick).
Sir Patrick Stewart (knighted by Queen Elizabeth in June) and T. R. Knight comprise the cast of the Main Stem edition. Mamet aficionado and Atlantic Theater Company artistic director Neil Pepe directs.
“Acting is half shame, half glory. Shame at exhibiting yourself, glory when you can forget yourself,” declared Sir John Gielgud.
The great actor could have been talking about Mamet’s tag team: Robert (Stewart), an aging actor whose best days are behind him, and John (Knight), who is a lot younger and appears to have the talent and ambition to achieve a successful career.
In 26 often quite brief scenes, the playwright sketches the evolving relationship between the two actors who share a dressing room and a number of terrible roles in a series of terrible plays staged by what seems to be the worst repertory company in theatre history.
At the outset Robert is the mentor, John, the protégé. Slowly and inevitably, as the young actor grows in strength and experience, Robert, a victim of the aging process and an inability to live life fully anywhere but onstage, loses his footing.
Scenes from their onstage endeavors thread through the play. Each parodies a stock theatrical genre (World War One melodrama, Chekhov comedy, period costume epic), and the material undoubtedly seemed a lot fresher and funnier the first time around, although it does give the stars the opportunity to dress up in a succession of Laura Bauer’s bravura, over-the-top costumes.
In 1992, five years into his seven-year superstar-making run as TV’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Stewart turned up on Broadway in his one-man adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” At that time, in the great tradition of actors trained at the Royal Shakespeare Company, his stage work displayed a superb mastery of theatrical technique, but lacked the emotional resonance that would make a performance seem like anything more than a brilliantly contrived demonstration of his abundant technical skills.
Since then the actor has worked diligently to achieve the effect of forgetting himself, and he is wonderfully real in “A Life in the Theatre.” Bursting with self-assurance one moment, riddled with insecurity the next, Stewart is wise, foolish, then wise again, and finally extremely moving as he becomes increasingly vulnerable as he faces an increasingly bleak future.
In his return to the New York theatre after a six-year absence, Knight, best known for his starring role as Dr. George O'Malley on the ABC medical drama, “Grey’s Anatomy,” proves to be the perfect foil, offering up a character who, although consumed by ambition, remains extremely likeable. This is skillful and appealing stage work.
Director Pepe has created a production that involves myriad set changes, and dimly lit stage hands seem constantly to be in motion shifting scenery while the actors change costumes. Mamet’s small stunt of a play cries out for intimacy. Yet the overproduction, which may be an attempt to make the production seem worthy of Broadway ticket prices, slows things down and never captures the paradoxically magical and claustrophobic feeling of lives exclusively in dressing rooms, back stage, onstage and sitting in a cold, empty theatre.
But that doesn’t mean that “A Life in the Theatre” doesn’t have its entertaining moments. It certainly does – especially if you want to see Stewart or Knight or both in the same place at the same time.
More than anything else, “A Life in the Theatre” is an exercise that requires two actors to utilize every trick in their repertoire to make the play come to life, and Stewart and Knight rise to the occasion.