This isn’t the first show I’ve seen this season but it damn sure is the funniest. The revival of David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre is still in previews. I’m not sure how the critics are going to treat it but I had a great time.
Patrick Stewart is a pretty amazing actor. In addition to his big, fun paydays as Captain Picard and Professor Xavier (the same character, really), he’s an accomplished Shakespearean stage actor. I saw him a few years ago in London in Antony and Cleopatra, which was good, and two years ago as Macbeth in New York, which was great. I thought he was too old to play Macbeth but he pulled it off.
Here, he plays an old windbag of an actor who has spent far too much time backstage and not enough time with civilians. Overly dramatic and sensitive to criticism, he takes himself and his craft far too seriously. His young colleague, played by T.R. Knight from Grey’s Anatomy, suffers his tantrums, hurt feelings and long, long, looooonng soliloquies about the theater and life, but develops a real affection for him. Some of the scenes are only a few lines long, but they’re perfectly placed little comedic bombs.
On the surface, Mamet seems to be making fun of actors. But the play is actually a love letter and a big wet kiss to the profession. It’s got a beautiful ending. As he walks off the stage, Patrick Stewart, in character, repeatedly, and with great hammy flourishes, wishes a good night to the imaginary audience he’s been playing to. Finally, just as he’s about to disappear into the wing, he turns to the audience, breaks character and quietly says, “Good night.” It’s an unexpected, effective fourth wall moment.
Written in 1977, this is one of Mamet’s earliest plays. Do you know how Woody Alan’s early stuff is a lot funnier than his later stuff? That goes for Mamet, too.