A Life in the Theatre

Goodman Theatre

Two actors, some lines . . . and an audience. That’s what I say. Fuck ’em all. –A Life in the Theatre

Especially in director Robert Falls’s funny and moving revival, David Mamet’s gentle, compact A Life in the Theatre is just right for launching the Goodman’s Mamet festival, a series intended to both reevaluate the playwright who helped shape off-Loop theater in the 70s and introduce his work to audiences who may know it mainly through his new TV drama The Unit. The play’s clipped rhythms, cryptic pauses, casual profanity, obsession with semantic precision–these are the hallmarks of a writer for whom drama lies in character and language rather than action. Thematically, too, this poignant 1977 comedy is quintessential Mamet. Like Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Oleanna, it charts the evolving relationship between an eager, hungry youngster and a needy, world-weary elder.

John, a young actor, shares a dressing room with seasoned veteran Robert. In a brisk suite of vignettes, Mamet chronicles the duo’s interactions onstage and off. They seem to be performing the repertory season from hell: Mamet’s parodies of Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Rattigan; World War I dramas; French Revolution dramas; hospital dramas; lifeboat dramas. Backstage, they run lines together, do vocal warm-ups, read the trades, and talk about audiences (“intelligent” and “discerning” on a good night, “bloody boors” on a bad one), agents (“bloodsuckers”), critics (“fucking leeches”), each other’s performances (“Brittle? Overly brittle?”), and the difficulty of working with a bad leading lady (“I want to kill the cunt,” says the usually gentlemanly Robert). And they talk about the meaning of art. “We are explorers of the soul,” Robert says. “We must not be clowns whose sole desire is to please.”

Robert is an old-school technician, for whom good acting derives from detailed textual analysis. John’s approach is more instinctive, but he comes to appreciate Robert’s emphasis on craft–even as Robert’s craftsmanship deteriorates under the influence of drink. Robert, meanwhile, sees in John the callow mistakes and boundless, unfulfilled hopes of his own youth. Garrulous, philosophically inclined, and facing his mortality, he eventually views John not only as a colleague but as his legacy.

Mamet has said, “It is the writer’s job to make the play interesting. It is the actor’s job to make the performance truthful.” David Darlow is brilliantly nuanced as Robert–profound and petty, almost monklike in his dedication yet riven by vanity, insecurity, and despair. Matt Schwader peels away layers to reveal John’s fascination and irritation with Robert and burning drive to take center stage. Falls’s direction is marked by hilarious sight gags, but also by finely tuned pacing. Mark Wendland’s towering set and Michael Philippi’s ingenious lighting suggest an old-fashioned theater’s various spaces, from stage to stage door, dressing room to green room. And Birgit Rattenborg Wise delivers a delightful array of period costumes for the characters’ onstage scenes.

In 1977, one could see in John and Robert’s exchanges the young Mamet facing his older self. Now, one hears Mamet (who turns 60 next year) addressing what Robert calls “tomorrow’s leaders,” advising them not to take on a life in the theater unless they have vision, drive, and a capacity for self-sacrifice.

WHEN: Through 4/9: Wed 7:30 PM, Thu 2 and 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 7:30 PM

WHERE: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

PRICE: $20-$65

INFO: 312-443-3800

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.