David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre, now playing at the Boulder Art Center, might be seen as an argument against a career in the theater--sort of a parent's tool to persuade the aspiring actor in the family to go to law school or become a sanitation engineer. But since it's by the dynamic, sardonic Mamet, a vague air of mystery and desire also hovers over the proceedings.
Mamet exposes the affectations, egotism, boring self-absorption, pettiness and piteousness of people--in this case, actors, who have a peculiar way of expressing these characteristics. But he also hints at how a good performance offers creative fulfillment. A Life is by no means "a love letter to the theater," as claimed by one critic, but a penetrating observation of backstage angst, loneliness and ennui. It is also very funny.
The Continental Divide Theatre Company's production, while far from perfect, allows Mamet's harsh spotlight to illuminate the crannies of two actors' lives as they are played out on stage and backstage--we never see either actor at home, with friends, at a restaurant. We see how they treat each other, how admiration can turn into annoyance and then eventually into tolerance. In the end, that tolerance can be played as warm acceptance or as cool indifference. Continental Divide chooses the latter.
As the show opens, the younger actor, John, is awestruck by the older actor's experience, riveted by his advice and anxious to please him. Robert is charmed by the younger man's attention, forthcoming with his wisdom and anxious to communicate. As the actors chat backstage after a performance, they discuss how the show went, complimenting each other's best scenes. But when Robert asks for a critique of one particular scene of his, John makes the mistake of telling him the truth: It was "brittle."
Pompous, bellowing, self-centered, Robert overestimates his own talents and instantly takes offense at the criticism. John recovers the moment by explaining that the actress in the scene was off. The men bond on the spot and go off to have a drink together.
Robert's limitless ego, his envy of the younger man's talents and youth and his own insecurities surface in little ways that become more and more irritating to John as time wears on. At one point Robert asks John to "do less" in a crucial scene. What he actually is saying is that John is stealing the scene. John obliges with a restrained performance, while Robert elaborately overacts.
In the end, Robert looks back over his life in the theater and realizes how quickly it has sped by: how many roles he has played and how soon they were over. The usual signs of age--memory lapses and botched lines--take their toll, grating on John's nerves. And John becomes harder; he loses his idealism, begins to grow an ego of his own and evolves into something of a jerk. However irritating Robert can be, there is something pitiable about him--something noble and sad, too.
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Peter Goldfarb as the extravagant Robert chooses a stylized attack on the character that suits it hilariously. His character appears to grow a self-protective bubble of pseudo-philosophy around him as we watch. Goldfarb's approach to Mamet's clipped, dry style is to make airy nonsense of Robert's histrionic odes to the theater.
Goldfarb, however, doesn't reach far enough for the spark of the real man behind all the hamminess. When Robert cuts his wrist in an obvious bid for sympathy, Goldfarb is unrelenting in his self-pity. But what that scene really calls for is a fuller revelation of authentic sorrow--the edge, but not the pit, of despair and self-loathing.
Kevin Causey as John moves from innocent enthusiasm to mature cynicism with easy authenticity. But Causey may go a little too far in portraying the evolution of an oaf. Here, too, the interpretation is too harsh.
Still, Goldfarb and Causey do manage to create an airtight little world on that stage. And, after all, Mamet is less interested in investigating the meaning of an actor's life than he is in showing us what the experience feels like. His approach to his subject isn't enough to be wholly satisfying--not quite a work of art, but certainly an artful view of "a life in the theatre.