11:11 Productions

at Sheffield’s School Street Cafe

It’s an old inequity. When a production is over and the set is struck, the playwright keeps the script, the set designer renderings and slides, the costume designer the clothes that outlast the players who wore them, and the box office the green stuff that delivers a nonnegotiable verdict on the whole affair.

But the actors. What can they show for the show? Soon-dated production photos, press clippings that describe the effects of a performance but leave one to guess at the causes, awards that say the magic is over? Perhaps there’s a videotape–but it only freezes in time and two dimensions a dynamic that changed from night to night.

In 1977 David Mamet wrote a vivid play that plays on this inequity. Refusing to reduce the theater to a social microcosm, A Life in the Theatre delights in its quirky, vital eccentricities. Celebrating the comradeship and loneliness of actors, the evanescence of their craft, and their undramatized rites of passage, it warmly reflects the tensions of professionals who, paid to live a lie, sometimes won’t face their own truths.

A Life carries its own dramatic irony; taking us backstage and onstage, Mamet shows us Robert and John, a veteran actor and a comer, as they prepare for, perform in, and review the productions that form their resumes. At the same time this is a script whose permanence mocks the transcience of its world. In effect, a second play goes on inside the real actors who play Mamet’s actors–the secret script players make up as they perform. While most plays assume that the actors are their lines, A Life hints at how much of the iceberg remains below.

Without resorting to symbols or simplification, A Life in the Theatre compresses a sprawling subject into an hour. Spontaneous, tedious, and mysterious as the actor’s life itself, the 26 blunt episodes depict telling moments when artists reveal their personal subtexts–as they cope with failure or, worse, another actor’s success, struggle for motivation, try not to steal focus, give advice or refuse it.

Despite his years on the boards, Robert is as sensitive to criticism as if he were starting out; like many actors, he invests his insecurities in his art. You might say Robert is the play’s title character. A thespian who holds passionately to the rules he’s learned (“Keep your back straight”), he’s always ready with advice to the players: “The mirror is your friend” and “We must not be second-class citizens . . . clowns whose sole desire is ‘to please.'” He now wants to pass these truths on to the “theater young”–in this case John. If he can, it will prove he was there.

Confident John is a different breed of artist. Relying on inspiration over technique, he makes up his own rules. He’s a natural in ways that Robert only vaguely remembers and palpably envies. But John nonetheless has to make the mistakes that Robert wants to save him from.

In the backstage vignettes (in-jokes that Mamet delights in) John and Robert bad-mouth scene-stealing colleagues and each other, worry about their weight and makeup, complain about critics, and practice stage combat. In the onstage scenes, where we see them pay their dues, Mamet spoofs a number of theatrical styles–Chekhov, soap opera, combat melodrama, Shakespeare . . .

Mamet’s parodies offer compassionate, hilarious looks at players who flounder for a missing cue, stay in character no matter what, milk a line for more than it can carry, and endure the hard landing of going down on their lines. But sometimes it all comes together: Robert wryly says about a performance, “I feel perhaps they saw a better show than the one we rehearsed.”

It’s natural for performers to love A Life in the Theatre–no actor’s exercise ever hit closer to home. But the play requires experience as much as it celebrates it–and this revival by 11:11 Productions doesn’t quite rise to the occasion. In Scott Williams’s staging backstage scenes are undistinguished from onstage ones. When Mamet requests accents, none are used. The actors fail to play up the parodies’ hammy humor; the skits are maddeningly unfocused. Worse, we don’t see David Clayton’s Robert or Brooks Palmer’s John drop his life in order to play his art. John seems even more distracted and inattentive than he’s written, his scenes played with a dutiful detachment that might pass for surly boredom. Where’s the spark that Robert would want to nurture?

Given a role that’s fatuous and poignant, Clayton is neither, barely developing Robert from scene to scene or contrasting his stage and dressing-room personas. Though we need to see Robert’s yearning to pass his torch and his fear that even as a mentor he won’t make a mark, Clayton just makes him sweetly temperamental. Clayton is also too young for the part–but that wouldn’t matter if the rest were there.

The night I saw A Life the scenes were done out of order; an already episodic plot became arbitrary, the characters’ evolution reduced to a confusing mishmash. Lines that might have carried weight were dropped, rushed, or jumped, and between the actors there was too little give-and-take.

The bottom line: Why do A Life if you can’t have fun with it?