There is not much “Mamet speak,” that cynical, street-smart, corrosive dialogue that playwright David Mamet has become known for, in his 1977 play “A Life in the Theatre,” and that’s fortunate; for this is actually quite a gentle little play, now being performed by the Alliance Theatre through Nov. 15 on their main stage. “A Life” had a respectable run of almost a year (1977-78) at New York’s Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel) in the West Village (after a Chicago premiere); this is a smallish, comfy house which showcases actors well. This play would seem to be a fine choice for the Alliance’s smaller Hertz Stage, but the powers that be chose otherwise.
There are only two actors: Andre De Shields, who plays Robert, an older, experienced actor: vain, gay, funny, at once wise and foolish. He’s also touchingly vulnerable and superbly played by Mr. De Shields, a Broadway veteran. Ariel Shafir plays John, a young, handsome, ambitious actor of great promise who is a willing protege (at first) of Robert. Mr. Shafir, a New York stage and film actor, gives a lovely performance. His John is a perfect foil for Mr. De Shields’ Robert.
In a series of some twenty scenes, onstage, offstage, and especially backstage, we find ourselves observing an allegory about art and life; the theme reminds me of the Puccini opera “Tosca,” whose most famous aria (“Vissi d’arte”) finds the heroine lamenting that she lived for art, but also for love. This is a soliloquy that Robert would understand all too well. Mr. De Shields comments in program notes that actors must have a life outside of that world, or they’ll become like his character: “Robert cannot leave the theatre or he will self-destruct.” He (Robert) begins to see that John has that life and he does not. Add to that John’s youth and beauty (which Robert both admires and envies), and it’s clear that passing the torch, as it were, is easier said than done.
The dynamics between the two actors (Do I mean De Shields and Shafir or Robert and John? It doesn’t matter!) is perhaps the most fun aspect of “A Life in the Theatre,” directed by Robert O’Hara.
We presume that John is straight (labels are so meaningless), but he delights in flirting with the older Robert and occasionally giving him a peck on the cheek. The doe-eyed, limpid John understands the art of seduction by listening intently; he’s totally aware of the effect his presence has on John, and becomes more calculating in its use.
The problem is (I’ve waited as long as I can to say this) that the actors are more interesting than the play. The pace is too slow at times, and the dialogue is often shallow and unformed. Yes, yes, I know it’s Mamet—early Mamet. And there are moments—too few—of pure delight. But again I must say the smaller Hertz theatre would have worked better; we could have focused more clearly on the charismatic Mr. De Shields and the dreamy, intense Mr. Shafir, who has quite a future.
If you’re a true theatre lover, or if you’ve ever acted (or wanted to) yourself, you’ll enjoy this show more. www.alliancetheatre.org.