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A Life in the Theatre

The Newsletter of the David Mamet Society 
Fall 1998 • Volume 5 • ISSN 1095-9629




By David Mamet. Ensemble Theatre Company of Santa Barbara,
Santa Barbara, California. 5 Dec. 1997-4 Jan. 1998.


David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre is about the uneasy passing of the torch from one generation to the next, a passing that is as sad as it is traumatic, as necessary as it is inevitable. Mamet reveals this moment through the relationship of an older and younger actor in a repertory company. Robert's and John's complex relationship includes love, genuine admiration, and coddling strokes which evolve into impatience, petulance, and finally abandonment. Driving the action with the rhythm of his language, Mamet evokes human emotions with the sparse sentences and precise words that are his trademark. Unfortunately, the Ensemble Theatre Company of Santa Barbara, California, fails in its production to catch the music of Mamet's duet.

Actors Jason Asprey and Rudolph Willrich make a fine attempt at capturing the emotion implicit in the musical dialogue. They correctly accent the staccato passages and do not resort to mugging or telegraphing the ubiquitous pauses, allowing the audience to fill in the silences, themselves thresholds between what is meant by the characters' words and what is perceived by the audience. Those pauses are where the author plumbs the potential of direction and misdirection, and Asprey and Willrich ably attend to them. Two of the "make-up table scenes" work particularly well in this regard. The first, scene 8, begins with a seemingly mundane discussion about make-up brushes, traverses through an awkward conversation where Robert, the older actor, asks John to "do less" on stage, and ends in almost slapstick broken-zipper routine. The second, near the end of the play, shows the breakdown of the actors' convivial relationship. At first the two characters commiserate about the critics, only to progress to a quarrel and the ironically humorous moment when Robert takes back his towel which John has borrowed. Both scenes are a mastery of reversal, setting off in one direction, turning back on themselves, then reversing again.

The counterpoint Asprey and Willrich work to create is undermined by the unimaginative design and direction of the Ensemble's artistic director, Robert Grande-Weiss. The production is devoid of any interplay and rhythm. The sets look cheap and amateurish, flimsy cutouts more in line with high school productions than with the professional Equity Theatre Company. The scene changes are cumbersome and interminable, destroying the play's rhythmic drive and energy.

Mamet's juxtaposition of the real world behind the curtain with what these actors create in front of the footlights stimulates the audience to struggle to understand John's and Robert's relationship in the context of the scenes they play on stage. Grande-Weiss's lackluster production never effectively suggests the connection. We feel no empathy for Robert, whose knowledge and love of the theatre excuse the emptiness and sadness he exudes, or John, whose abandonment of Robert only appears youthfully petulant and crass. Nor do we care that John's support of Robert, paradoxically, is filled with a love for the aging actor and the theatrical mysticism he espouses. Asprey and Willrich try for such empathy, but the production and its direction fail them.

University of California, Santa Barbara