Just before the beginning of each short scene in the briskly paced, two-person play A Life in the Theatre, actors Monte Jenkins and Howard Kingston take a second to bow to each other. It’s a courtly and gracious sort of act, a brief moment of respect and acknowledgement for the fellow actor in a play that’s ultimately about the lack of respect those on stage usually experience. In fact, the bow is representative of the whole play, a literal nod to how difficult and trying and thankless the role of an actor can be whether you’re the aging and slowly fading veteran like Kingston’s character, Robert, or an aspiring and still promising up-and-comer like Jenkins’ John. This is just about you and me, that bow seems to signify, and screw the rest of them.
David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre is considered the famous playwright’s love letter to his profession. It’s a pretty cynical correspondence, as it follows two actors continuously cast by a repertory theater company trading backstage banter and onstage miscues over an inglorious and unspecified amount of time. Through a series of brief snapshots we see them simply saying good morning, discussing the merits of a performance, at the gym working out or chatting while taking off make-up. Some snapshots, lasting all of two lines, hardly have time to come into focus.
We also see snippets of the clichéd material these dedicated craftsmen have to trudge through onstage , most including ridiculous monologues or embarrassing bloopers, like a forgotten line, an uncooperative prop or a missed cue. For better or worse, these snippets always get cut off just as the tension is reaching its apex of awkwardness. What does happen when a line is botched so badly that a scene completely falls apart? We don’t find out—lights go down, set gets rearranged, actors bow, lights come back up and we’re on to the next glimpse.
Mamet’s play isn’t about onstage tension as much as it is backstage insecurity. Over the course of 80 minutes and 25 or so scenes, the audience isn’t shown the outline of these two actors’ lives as much as the underbelly of what they have to endure as professionals. It’s like a best-of collection of every reason working in theater sucks—reviewers don’t get it (ahem), leading ladies preen excessively, bellies bulge despite diets and, eventually, we get old and washed up. It’s all quite depressing, even with Mamet’s successful interspersing of humor throughout—it is quite funny—and an end that pivots toward hopeful.
But here’s the thing I couldn’t help but come away wondering: Who cares? Actors and theater nuts, sure—they’ll get the spoof of Chekhov and the references to “process” and eat up the bitter monologues of Kingston’s elder sage with a you-tell-it-sister solidarity. But what’s there for the average theatergoer? What’s A Life in the Theatre bring to the table for them? There’s not nearly enough character development or time to care for the plight of the old actor. There’s no way in to rooting for the young ones’ potential success. And we’re never really sure what either one is striving for other than some basic recognition, and that seems too thin a base for an entire dramatic arc when we barely know enough to offer it ourselves.
The play’s setup is reminiscent of the recent television trend toward taking viewers behind the scenes. Aaron Sorkin said he wanted “The West Wing” to cover everything in politics between each photo-op and press conference seen on CNN; Sorkin’s now writing about the backstage happenings of a sketch comedy show, one of two such new programs on NBC. HBO, meanwhile, seems comfortable serving audiences multiple passes to inside-Hollywood: “Entourage,” “Extras,” “Unscripted” and “The Comeback” all tried the tack with varying results. A Life in the Theatre has the same all-access premise, pulling back the curtain and revealing unglamorous show-business reality, except we never get the full personal drama that’s supposed to come with the package. We only get these glimpses, and in the end they’re as fulfilling as rice cakes, nothing but a smart snack. Perhaps Mamet’s material is surpassed by what’s followed his play’s 1977 debut.
In the absence of a full story, if anything saves A Life in the Theatre it’s the chance to see two of Missoula’s finest actors chew through Mamet’s dialogue. Kingston is at his best when his characters are burdened by life, his arms hanging by his side like anvils, shoulders hunched, looking generally like he’s draped in the weight of the world. Even Kingston’s exhalations carry the impact of a gust. His role here allows him to do all of that, his intensity kept to the lines of his face and the whites of his eyes as he rattles through Mamet’s repetitive phrases. Jenkins has less to work with, his character mostly listening and reacting to his garrulous colleague (similar to the two actors’ interplay in Sight Unseen), but he handles the role steadily and milks what he can when opportunities arise. In both of performances, and especially in the comedic elements, director Roger Hedden’s influence and experience is evident—the play would not have been nearly as funny with someone else at the helm.
But despite these stellar efforts, A Life in the Theatre still plays like an inside joke. It’s an intriguing ode to theater, but for anyone looking for something to grasp beyond that trust circle of vocal exercises and quick costume changes, the grip’s been stripped bare. It goes back to the actors’ respectful bow before each scene—it’s a moment for them and no one else, kind of like Mamet’s play.
Montana Rep Missoula’s A Life in the Theatre runs through Sunday, Oct. 15, at 8 PM at the Crystal Theatre. $10 Thursday and Sunday/$15 Friday and Saturday.