There is a line in Mel Brooks’1969 film “The Producers” that is well loved by many theater people. When young Leo notes that “actors are people too,” Max responds “Yeah? Ever eaten with one?”
David Mamet’s 1977 play “A Life in the Theatre” now running at Nelson County’s Hamner Theater, has been called a love letter to the theater. In it, an older actor on the way down is seen backstage through many shows with a young actor on the way up. How their relationship develops is the play.
It can be looked at as a gentle glimpse into the lives of the actors, but maybe Mamet actually had something else in mind. Maybe this play was his figurative meal with actors.
That wouldn’t make it any less a love letter. Theater people tend to be aware of their own foibles, perhaps more than their audiences are. Egos sometimes may prevail, but theater people who can’t laugh at themselves operate with a serious handicap.
When he wrote this show in 1977, Mamet already had been hailed as the new young playwright for his gritty “American Buffalo,” and most of his subsequent plays (“Glengarry Glen Ross,” for example) have been equally down to earth, complete with the vulgarity of both life and language.
But for Mamet — and for theater people — “Life in the Theatre” is very tame in its language, with fewer four-letter words than Mamet usually provides, and far fewer than theater people have been known to utter.
Mamet’s known for gritty realism, but his two actors here seem to be stereotypes: The aging actor-mentor with ego and insecurity in equal parts, and the young actor, ambitious, up and coming, learning from his elder — at least until his elder drives him crazy.
Mamet is not afraid to make fun of himself, either. In one of the first of 26 short scenes — some as short as a single sentence — his actors comment on the stilted language and long pauses of the fictional play they are performing. Mamet, of course, is known to write both stilted language and long pauses into his plays, including this one.
The Hamner’s production of this, directed by Boomie Pedersen, often is funny and engaging, but there’s something missing.
It seems that his play could work in one of two ways, either with the actors playing the characters straight — as real, fragile people — or as broad, comic exaggerations. This production seems to be neither-nor, though Pedersen’s program notes indicate that she was going for the former.
Bill Le Sueur seems too young for his part as an aging actor. That, combined with sketchy character definition in the script, takes some of the strength out of his performance. The character doesn’t seem real at all.
Young Eamon Hyland plays his character much more realistically, and presents a more rounded, believable character. He is very funny in a scene where his character thinks he’s missed his cue.
Because the production is funny and absorbing, it’s hard, while watching, to figure out exactly why it doesn’t quite seem on the mark. Pedersen is a good director, but the show would be better if she’d helped guide Le Sueur into a more realistic vein, cast an older actor or made a different, more broadly comical, choice for the whole show.
There is a lot of laughter nonetheless, especially when the fictional actors, backlit behind a scrim, perform scenes from stereotypical fictional plays. Larry Hugo’s lighting design and J. Taylor’s set make the whole thing work.
A key part of the play, set backstage at a theater as the characters perform different plays, is costume changes, from one scene/play to another. Here, they often take too long, though some are very funny in their own right. Still, the show runs just an hour and 40 minutes, and it’s not a bad show. It just could be a bit better.