Haywood Arts Regional Theatre’s 2011 Studio season was, like so much else, blindsided by blizzards, and launched belatedly this weekend with the actors’ tour-de-force, A Life in the Theatre, by David Mamet. The scene is a rising young heart-throb, John, and a fading star, Robert, chit-chatting from adjoining make-up tables backstage. Casey Morris is the heart-throb, always on the edge of lashing out at his tedious friend, yet wonderfully controlled and, when it is needful, loving. Steve Lloyd is Robert, full of wise saws and modern instances, whom we forgive for sententiousness because he is, for the most part, right. Yet nothing is more irritating than a wise bore. Robert is a sort of Polonius, and we rather long for him to meet the same fate.
Mamet has set several obstacles here. The first is that the audience has no way of knowing whether either Robert or John is any good on stage. The snippets we are allowed to see are badly acted bits of bad plays — the company’s mission must be to insure the worst plays ever written are never quite put out of their misery. It takes superb actors to play badly on purpose without winking, and both Lloyd and Morris are brilliantly up to the task. Cues are missed and props disintegrate, but is that momentary bad luck or the lingering admonitions of fate? Do we see Robert at one sad moment in a long descent, John in an embarrassing early hour of a brilliant career, or are they just a couple of second raters who sometimes get the breaks and sometimes miss them without its making a whole lot of difference to their lives? John seems to be on a rising arc and Robert on a falling, but the arcs themselves may be insignificant. It would be like Mamet if they were. The sadness of little people and the sadness of great ones are equal in life, but it is not quite so on stage, and it would be well to have a little more guidance on how to distribute our emotions.
There are serious discrepancies of tone in the play, and they’re Mamet’s fault rather than the actors’. Robert is more pathetic than he needs to be. It’s almost as if Mamet were settling a score with someone who was that type of actor, or all who are that type of actor. The cards are stacked against him, while John is flawless, a kind of everyman. His flawlessness rests largely on not having expressed an opinion about anything, really, which leaves him a convivial — and quite caring — cipher. It’s as if he’s saving his energies, saving both indignation and self-revelation, for the movie he makes the deal for on the phone.
The laughs in this play are abundant and genuine. The pathos is, somehow, not.
A Life in the Theatre runs Friday, Jan. 21, Saturday, Jan. 22 and Sunday, Jan. 23, in the Feicheter Studio at HART. Visit http://www.harttheatre.com for more details.
Those interested in the excellent HART Studio Series will want to check the HART website, for, as announced before the play, weather, personnel problems, and all such shocks the flesh is heir to have caused them to re-arrange their schedule, though it appears certain that William Luce’s The Last Flapper — about Zelda Fitzgerald — goes up in February.