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‘Theater’ adaptation leaves something to be desired

By John Angell Grant
Thursday June 21, 2001

Berkeley’s Aurora Theater opened a well performed but not-quite-satisfying production Thursday of David Mamet’s difficult 1977 backstage story “A Life in the Theater.” 

Running one hour and 20 minutes with no intermission, this two-character play is a romantic, nostalgic paean to the life of professional actors working day-in and day-out in a changing series of plays at a repertory theater. 

Mamet’s script is a challenging one, and it’s left to the production’s two actors and director to create a drama out of a series of 40 or so vignettes filled with innuendo, in which the story is told indirectly. 

Though the performances from actors Michael Shipley and Warren Keith are compelling and empathetic, director Nancy Carlin’s production doesn’t quite manage to rise above the level of an extended vignette and become a full play. In “A Life in the Theater,” older actor Robert (Keith) and younger actor John (Shipley) perform in many short scenes, which include segments from their repertory performances on stage, as well as backstage talk in their dressing room, before, during and after shows. 

They play, alternately, World War I British troops in a battlefield trench, dueling foes in Renaissance garb, two dying sailors drifting in a lifeboat, doctors in surgery, businessmen in a love triangle, and an elderly man in a wheelchair with his attendant. 

Backstage they change costumes between scenes, gab while working at the make-up table, debate form versus content in art, critique each other’s performances, backbite about other actors, and criticize the critics. 

Standing in the wings at one point, they panic over their lines, just before going on stage. They may or may not have a romantic fling. 

Mamet’s play about the theatrical changing of the guard is told from the outside in.  

Sharing craft discussion, the two men work to understand each other and themselves, and to develop some sort of friendship. Older actor Robert is a lonely man with less life outside the theater than younger John. 

Both Aurora performances are large-spirited and sympathetic, but the play is a hard one to direct. Mamet’s style of dialogue employs barbed, elliptical Pinteresque gaps, in which more is unspoken in the words than spoken. 

Mamet developed the play originally from a collection of 15 individual scenes that he accumulated one at a time. He then eventually expanded the piece and stitched it into a full evening. 

A lot of the dramatic issues between the two characters are not stated directly, or take place offstage, and are then internalized indirectly in later scenes.  

In director Carlin’s Aurora production, however, this offstage conflict doesn’t build clearly enough in the subsequent onstage scenes. 

Although older actor Robert stumbles by the end of the play, his impact on younger actor John isn’t clearly registered. It’s hard to put your finger on the story in this production. 

“A Life in the Theater” is a lesser play by the great David Mamet – a romance about a bygone era, and a love story, of sorts, between two people who can’t express themselves any better than when they act in plays. 

Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for “American Theatre,” “Backstage West,” “Callboard,” and many other publications. E-mail him at