Talk Is Cheap

A Life in the Theatre
Jungle Theater

HERE'S A SECRET I wish everybody knew, especially my friends who don't like theater: Nobody is born knowing how to watch a play. Like listening to jazz or classical music, theatergoing requires chops. I've only learned how to do it through sheer repetition, over the course of 20 years. And whenever I bring a non-aficionado to a mediocre show, God, I feel for him. I know why he squirms; I know what it's like when you just don't have the tools to dig out the goods. Most drama will meet its audience halfway; the other half is up to us.

David Mamet's backstage play, A Life in the Theatre (1977), gravitates toward that empty space. Like a solo by bassist Charlie Haden, the play lives in the silence between the "notes": the space between actors; between actor and audience; between the imagination and "real" life. Unfortunately, the piece is also a deep probe into the empty space between lines--I counted 15 places to "pause" within the first five pages of the script--but we'll get to that later. The play, revived here by the Jungle Theater, deals with two actors, one young and one old, who spend their lives together at a regional repertory company--sharing a dressing room, practicing lines, going for drinks, and discussing the theater. As they endlessly cycle from one play to the next, the two slide into an uneasy alliance. The older one, Robert, assumes the mentor role, oblivious to the possibility that John, the younger man, neither needs nor wants a mentor.

Mamet occasionally writes a character that represents himself; apparently, he's done it overtly with his latest, The Old Neighborhood. Here, though, there's some Mamet in both these fellows, and they're none too compatible. John (Jim Lichtscheidl) has the wavering, charged confidence of youth; he auditions for roles at other theaters and shows an interest in film work. Robert (Richard Ooms), on the other hand, is a theater person to his core and a compulsive pontificator (a dicey combo!), laying down grand opinions on acting, reviewers, the purpose of theater, etc. ("An ugly sound, to me, is more offensive than an ugly odor...[It] is an extension of an ugly soul.") Often, he's quite profound, which is somewhat obscured by the fact that he won't shut up. We identify instead with John and listen in silence, trying to glean what we can and leave the rest alone.

Prickly as he is, Robert still represents the soul of the play. And Mamet is a lot like Robert; for one thing, he's deeply fond of his own opinions. In interviews and essays, Mamet spouts sound bites of wisdom like some oracle at Chicago, nuggets that could easily come from Robert's mouth: "Here is the best acting advice I know. Invent nothing, deny nothing. This is the meaning of character"; or, "Doing more with less, that's what art is about, juggling with one ball." But maybe the more ambitious John is a stand-in for the go-getter Mamet who has written the screenplays for The Untouchables and Wag the Dog (among numerous others). If so, it is Mamet's Robert-side that penned A Life in the Theatre. When Robert berates John for talking too much--"You can learn a lot from keeping your mouth shut"--the frightfully prolific Mamet could be scolding himself. (Among some 30 works are plays, screenplays, essay collections, and novels.)

Robert, with his self-contained philosophizing, recalls that line from Hamlet: He is the master of a universe within a walnut shell. The Jungle's production, directed by Bain Boehlke, circles around that solitary place as long as it can before sputtering into silence. Don't let the photo fool you: This production--lighting, sets, props, everything--is as skeletal as the script; it feels like a silent black-and-white movie whose set designer has forgotten to show up. Instead, the actors' poses are carefully designed with a painterly sensibility reminiscent of Edward Hopper. The script too bears a stark, high-contrast sensibility: It's composed of 26 short scenes, punctuated by 25 blackouts. Add in the countless pauses Mamet calls for--you could drive the Shubert Theater between the actors' lines--and you've got a fine example of what Mamet must have meant by "juggling with one ball."

Trouble is, minimalist juggling works better as a concept than a piece for the stage. Lichtscheidl somehow makes us care about John, despite his blank looks and preposterously mannered lines. Even Ooms, whose character Robert is more pretentious, sounds rather stilted saying things like, "I wouldn't tell you if it wasn't so... I wouldn't say it if it weren't so." Ooms is valiant here; we ultimately accept his language, his gradual emotional breakdown, his compulsion to spout opinions.

What we can't accept is the uneasy sense of familiarity with these characters as stock types. Of course the elder actor is a tragic alcoholic. Naturally the younger man rebels against his mentor. Mamet prods the audience into compliance with his scheme, and the audience comes to resent his many clichés. The only "new" thing here, perhaps, is the overall concept, a play about silence. A fine idea, taxing though it may be to survive. But when a play's concept is more interesting than its characters--well, those are the times when the dramaphobes feel justified in their ignorance. I can't really blame them.

A Life in the Theatre continues at the Jungle Theater through March 22; call 822-7063.

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