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A Life in the Theatre

Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight deliver brilliant comic performances in David Mamet's breezy backstage comedy.

Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight
in A Life in the Theatre
(© Carol Rosegg)
There's not much of substance in David Mamet's backstage comedy, A Life in the Theatre, now making its Broadway debut at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. However, stars Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight deliver brilliant comic performances in Neil Pepe's amusingly breezy production.

The play -- which premiered Off-Broadway in 1977 and has been revised for this production -- is made up of short scenes that chronicle the on- and off-stage friendship and rivalry between an older actor, Robert (Stewart), and a younger one, John (Knight). Mamet pokes gentle fun at various modes of performance, from a wartime drama to a Chekhovian segment that also seems to owe a debt to Beckett. The characters of Robert and John are also ripe for ridicule -- particularly in Stewart and Knight's tongue-in-cheek portrayals.

Stewart's gloriously sonorous voice is used to give Robert an exaggeratedly self-important air, while Knight takes on a variety of ridiculously caricatured accents throughout the play as John and Robert romp their way through various stage shows. And while the talents of Stewart and Knight are never in question, the audience does get the feeling that Robert and John are mediocre thespians, at best.

Adding to the sense of fun are Laura Bauer's costumes that immediately indicate the style of performance being played out, while also being exaggerated just enough to inspire a bit of laughter, as well. The same goes for Santo Loquasto's set design, particularly the construction of a boat that bobs up and down thanks to a man-powered see-saw effect.

The vaudeville and sketch comedy influences on the script are emphasized in Pepe's production, with plenty of sight gags and farcical stage business to keep the action lively. In fact, the show could do with a few darker shades in order to give it more dimension, as even a scene in which Robert has likely attempted suicide doesn't have the dramatic heft that it might.

The majority of changes that Mamet has made to his script are fairly minor, but there is one scene towards the top of the show -- in which Robert and John bond over a role they both played in school -- that is a more substantial and effective addition. Still, what the playwright hasn't done is give his characters a greater sense of progression. By play's end, Robert and John aren't that much different than how they started out.