Mamet's A Life in the Theatre reveals drama

"I knew Lee J. Cobb. Lee J. Cobb was a friend of mine. And you're no Lee J. Cobb": Bain Boehlke (left) and Robin Everson
Michal Daniel

The life of the actor, perhaps more than most, entails the kind of stark tradeoffs that tend to winnow out those with less than total devotion. There's the constant uncertainty from one job to the next, and the potential ego shattering from every bad show or unsuccessful audition. But then there's the applause, the moments of validation, and the fact that, by and large, the rest of us have to play a single role day in and day out.

David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre deals with two such lives: the veteran actor Robert (Bain Boehlke) and the bright-eyed up-and-comer John (Robin Everson). We meet them in the first scene backstage on opening night of an unnamed production, where John exudes both relief that he got through the show and a tentative reverence for his cool, chortling elder.

It's a snapshot, a moment, and what follows traces similar fragments of these two performers' lives onstage and off. In one scene, the pair are in the trenches of World War I. Later they're backstage after an Elizabethan drama, with Robert giving John an impromptu lesson on swordplay. Then the two are in a dance studio, with Robert becoming more expansive, more sage-like.

"We are explorers of the soul," Robert tells John, the sort of nugget of insight that, offstage, Boehlke himself is prone to producing. Here he occupies his role with gravity combined with a sense that Robert's arc is circular. As the scenes pile up, John gradually assumes a more commanding posture, and his sheepish fondness for his grizzled comrade begins to show shades of impatience.

Boehlke also designed the versatile, black-box replica set, and here the intergenerational interplay is staged with an almost uncomfortable level of insight and understanding. Midway through, John is on the verge of an eye roll after another of Robert's musings, and when Robert offers some advice for a scene ("Do less"), John goes from eager to please to realizing that the unfamiliar sensation he's experiencing is a profound chapping of his ass.

As these moments gather force, the balance of power between the two begins to shift (in the early going there are soft shades of an unrequited crush on Robert's part, an undertone that fades with John's professional ascent). Pretty soon John is eagerly on the phone with a casting agent, while Robert shows increasing enthusiasm as a consumer of alcoholic beverages.

If one tends to think of Mamet coming at his audience with a barbed cudgel of staccato language and jarring emotion, the proceedings here are positively sweet, rife with humor and abundant fondness for the two primary characters (four other performers act as stagehands and observers). In one funny, moving scene, John is rehearsing alone when a thoroughly besotted Robert intrudes, delivering a long, semi-coherent rant about passing the torch, then bursting into tears in the dark. Boehlke delivers Robert as increasingly desperate, full of barely understood emotion that only ever really adds up when he's on a stage.

Robert is no prince, of course. He cuts down John at one point, brimming with quiet rage over the good reviews his young friend is receiving. Toward the end, Robert forgets his lines and begins contradicting John in the middle of a scene. It's a gentle sort of nightmare, with Boehlke still exuding Robert's trademark self-assurance but now with a queasy sense that it has become entirely misplaced.

At the end, Robert is fairly shattered, all the triumphs and breakthroughs having come to desperation and futility. John, for his part, stares into the lights of the future with the tranquil smile of someone who knows things are working out for him. Perhaps the most powerful endorsement of this production is that we can find ourselves in both of them. Desperation, confusion, optimism—they all feature prominently in the roles we choose for ourselves, and the scattershot moments that make up our narrative. Would the last one out of the theater please turn out the lights and lock up before you go? 

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