Stages of Life

A new production of Mamet's A Life in the Theater hams it up, but doesn't satisfy.

Talk-show blather and gossip-column imbecility notwithstanding, professional performers aren't all celebrified brats who uniformly indulge in angst-filled tantrums, global bed-hopping and public displays of megalomania. Like athletes whose passion for the game extends well beyond the final whistle, most stage actors are more devoted to studying and perfecting the nuances of their craft than pursuing the ephemera of fame.

Still, every actor eventually contends with warring egos, creative differences and backstage brouhahas. As the protagonists in David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre demonstrate, behind-the-scenes power dynamics are often more theatrical and intriguing than anything that happens in front of a paying audience. Especially since Mamet's pair of thespians are, both literally and figuratively, generations apart in temperament, outlook and deportment.

Mamet's 1977 work, which is being presented by Way of the World Productions, chronicles a year in the life of a Midwest repertory company as seen through the eyes of Robert (Len Kiziuk), an aging leading man, and John (Sam Wood), his up-and-coming protegé. As the eighty-minute, intermissionless show unfolds on the Phoenix Theatre's expansive stage, the two exchange cutting remarks, weather a slew of play-within-a-play gaffes, immerse themselves in teapot-sized tempests and pontificate about life, the theater and their own mercurial relationship.

Wood and Kiziuk, who also directs the production, have little difficulty depicting the behavior of people who toil in a financially risky enterprise. It's easy enough to appreciate their tandem take on dressing-room oddities (such as meticulously demarcating space on a crowded makeup table), occupational hazards (such as missing an entrance while standing three feet off stage trying to remember one's cue) and the perils of artistic collaboration (such as playing opposite an actress whose dearth of talent is exacerbated by her lack of technique). The plucky performers also articulate their characters' differing attitudes toward work and leisure. Kiziuk exudes Robert's preening pretension and his old-school habit of holding forth at length on any topic, whether professional or personal, while Wood communicates John's fastidious and career-climbing nature. In one episode, the boyish tradition-bucker even declares that he'll have to check his appointment book to see if he's free to join Robert for that most time-honored of actor's rituals: the post-show drink and performance critique. And both Kiziuk and Wood have a grand time hamming it up during their execution of "scenes" that are vaguely reminiscent of Chekhov and O'Neill masterworks.

But the affable pair falls far short of conveying Mamet's larger discourse about the inherent perils, glories and contradictions of a life in art. Discussions about another performer's abilities devolve into isolated snitfits instead of elaborate ploys to measure one's own worth against another's failure. Robert's eventual decline borders on acute hysteria instead of illustrating an image-conscious man's unsettling realization that he no longer has absolute control over how he's perceived and understood. And rehearsals and performances degenerate into exercises that exaggerate John and Robert's weaknesses instead of stressing their attempts to overcome the pitfalls of bad material. Indeed, Wood's puppy-dog approach belies John's serious desire to establish himself as a respected player in a highly political, ruthlessly competitive field, while Kiziuk's jaded queen is devoid of the eloquence and dignity that bespeaks a once-distinguished actor who's fiercely unwilling to surrender the crown. Unfortunately, the two come across as a couple of small-minded hacks who have no pride to lose -- nor any success to attain -- because neither displays much nobility of spirit.

Part of the problem is Kiziuk's decision to direct the piece as well as act in it, which prevents him from correcting imbalances that would be obvious to him if he were watching from offstage. An abundance of pauses and internalized emoting rob the show of effective pacing, and staging choices sometimes defy common sense. John, for example, finally gets the gumption to tell the controlling Robert that he'll have to use his own towels from now on. But the moment, which marks a crucial turning point in the characters' relationship, passes almost without notice -- mostly because Kiziuk fails to establish the fact that there's an intricate machinery of manipulation churning beneath the surface of John and Robert's seemingly offhand remarks. In addition, sight gags and set-ups are sometimes sloppily executed, such as when a desperate Robert tries to avoid taking an unexpected onstage phone call by handing the receiver to John. Instead of earning laughter, Kiziuk elicits uncomfortable silence because he telegraphs the moment by thrusting the receiver in Wood's direction long before he "gets" the idea to saddle his partner with, "Perhaps you should take this." And even if some of the poorly played moments are intended to point up aspects of show-business banality, a more objective directorial hand would crystallize that idea by tempering the actors' now-unchecked impulses with a greater respect for the play's overall arc.

Mamet is taking a few potshots at mediocrity, pretension and generational differences here, but he also has a great deal to say about the sublime grandeur that sometimes occurs when one human being stands before an audience and illuminates thoughts, feelings and dreams that are common to us all. To better communicate those ideas, Kiziuk and Wood might want to pay closer attention to one of Robert's exhortations: "Give it some life, give it some guts -- and to hell with experimentation."

 
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