Through Sunday, Feb. 24
Theatre in the Park, Raleigh
It’s unclear if jaded stage veteran Robert is looking for a friend or an acolyte when he first chats up John, a rising young actor, in David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre, a knowing backstage dramatic comedy now playing at Theatre in the Park. But after Robert deftly wheedles a post-show drinks invitation, he soon reveals himself as the workplace equivalent of that serial monologist you can’t get away from at a party: a boorish expert on all things theatrical in search of a permanent junior partner.
After set designer Nathaniel Conti places us literally backstage, behind a wall of theatrical flats stenciled “Sound of Music” and “Hamlet Act One,” director Ira David Wood III wittily explores the thespian hazards that audiences never see. When set pieces, props, sound cues, and costumes malfunction, Robert (Wood) and John (Ira David Wood IV) have to make the best of it. When they can’t agree on what to do after a dropped line, they stay amusingly trapped in the scene until the curtain mercifully descends. Mamet makes it clear that the calumnies of bad reviews, the toil of keeping fit, and the purgatory of being offstage all make acting difficult enough without an older—but not necessarily wiser—coworker forever pontificating in your ear.
As Wood IV’s unassuming John gradually comes of age—through a series of laughable melodramas, from a hackneyed war play to a uniquely doomed Ibsen knockoff—he loses patience with Robert’s infinite pronouncements and withdraws from the relationship. When the older actor is destabilized as a result, the script and production veer into a self-pity that’s funny, briefly, before turning maudlin. At the end, gravely comparing a life in theater to a blown-out match, clinging to a solitary worklight and beckoning spectral applause from an empty theater, Wood III brings a Norma Desmond air to Mamet’s ultimately downbeat tribute to the stage.