A Life in the Theater, an early (1977) play by David Mamet, is a funny, gentle, and too-quickly-passing ninety-minute tribute to the craft of acting and the bond between actors. In twenty-six short scenes, David Wolber and Loren Bass play actors in a repertory company slogging through a season. We spy on them not only in their dressing room and at rehearsal, but also from offstage as we watch snatches of their performances on a fictional stage, the footlights toward our eyes. The series of "plays" in which they perform is a wickedly ridiculous schmaltzfest, more like the lowlights of someone's very long B-movie career than one season in a professional theater season, but no matter.
Mamet, who is now solidly part of the contemporary canon, made his name as part of a little flowering of American arts in the 1970s and 1980s that gloried in the androcentric. It was as if a whole generation of art were inspired by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as movies, books, and plays explored — luxuriated almost — in counting the many ways of male bonding: buddies homoerotic-style, father-son-style, Bickersons-style. Playwright Sam Shepard, the Steppenwolf and Goodman theaters in Chicago, James Dickey, Jim Harrison, and Tom McGuane were a few of the big names in this testosterone-soaked cohort. Mamet's trademark contribution is dialogue that mimics how people really do talk, with all the repetitions, trail-offs, and non sequiturs.
While some of the work of that era is now about as appealing as old gym socks, Mamet's still seems deep and real, always about genuine fault lines and seismic movement in human interactions. This play is about two men, one old, one young, and the passing of the torch. It's about theater as a sacrament. It's about the dailiness of life, the moments of poetry bookending toil and irritation. It's also funny and fast paced, and John Seibert's director's note in the program even provides a good orientation to Mamet's complex view of the world — something you might otherwise miss, for Mamet is never particularly heavy handed with his messages.
A Life in the Theater continues its run at Performance Network through Sunday, June 11.
[Review published June 2006]