David Mamet's "A Life in the Theater," now at the
Matrix Theater, is just what the title implies: a life. It doesn't try
to be anything definitive, but it manages to tell us a great deal,
often amusingly, just the same.
Two actors, one aging, the other starting out and
then gaining strength and maturity, find themselves in a number of
productions together, at adjacent tables, applying makeup, sharing
compliments and opinions. The older offers advice and oblique
guidance. The deferential younger takes it, and then grows to the
point where he doesn't altogether need it.
Stephen Elliott plays the senior member and Bruce
Davison is the young man on the way up, and under David Birney's
direction, they give us a finely modulated view of the change in their
relationship. Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral have given us the
requisite set-in-reverse, where the grungy, cold-brick backstage is
before us, and beyond, the mystical darkness of the theater,
punctuated by spotlights and tiny green exit signs.
The opening montage of voices speaking the words of
Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, among others, reminds us that in
the theater human utterance can be most searching and eloquent. But
actors alone-who are they? Backstage drama has never given us quite
the sense of how actors onstage are filled in their costumes.
"A Life in the Theater," without major histrionics,
shows us how the ego is a provisional creation. The old man speaks of
the art-those little moments where you get to the heart of a
thing-with the knowledge of one who has learned all the tricks. But
that knowledge isn't enough to displace his loneliness, for him
everything happens in the theater (less so for the younger). The play
gives us the sense of what it means to blow a line, hook your toupee
on a pike and come backstage to point a finger or make
self-reparations. Or, in the case of Elliott's Robert, know you are
beginning to fail.
"A Life in the Theater" is as beautifully and
meticulously put together as a fine piece of music. It sees everything
within its compass closely. Theater aficionados can love it for all
its inside hints-which aren't altogether unlike t observations color
commentators give us about pro sports on TV; that is, the best way to
do something. The rest can look on as witnesses to two people entwined
in the ancient Greek metaphor of vines: at first the old support the
young, and then they are in turn supported.
Fine actors involved in great roles are often
superior conversationalists inasmuch as they are filled up as
archetypal figures with larger perspectives. "A Life in the Theater"
has few reflections on what comes to us through the actor in that
regard. Instead it gives us a look into his sense of moment. The play
doesn't overstate its case about what a frail and peculiar life is,
for all its grand history.
The single dubious note in this production is
Davison's absence of personality. He has fine techniques, and in a
scene where he thinks he's blown his cue he shows us a comical
indecisiveness. All of his gestures and inflections are down—it's a
studied performance—but he has a vapid center. If we were able to feel
more of the cobra of ambition in him, the natural hunger to achieve,
there would be more of a dialectic between him and Elliott. Elliott,
for his part, gives us everything of a man who has acquired heavy and
versatile tools of a trade. The emptiness and fear he confesses are
largely offstage. He gives us a man whose raison d' etre is to
perform; outside that, he is almost as hollow as a costume on a
hanger, reft of everything except form and dignity. It is a
thoughtful, wise, quiet and subtle performance, thoroughly in keeping
with the nature of the play. Jane Harrison moves things along as a
silent stage manager and Stuart Klawans provides the merry music.