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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. The Jungle Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 24 Jan. 1998


Life in the Theatre is a drama of nostalgia and promise, a dialogue about making art and living life and about what might or might not endure. Seldom performed, this early Mamet play lacks the gritty machismo and violent menace of his more recent widely acclaimed drama. With only three profanities, you might wonder if you're in Mamet terrain at all. As designed and directed by Artistic Director Bain Boehlke, who also directed and starred in the company's 1992 production, The Jungle Theater's current version is full-bodied and insightful, capturing both the play's light and the inevitable darkness beyond those instruments.

Rudolph Wilrich (older) as Robert the
seasoned professional actor and Jason Asprey
(younger) as John the zestful upstart in
David Mamet's backstage comedy
A Life in the Theatre. Photo by Jeff Brouws 

The roles of Robert and John, master actor and apprentice in this play about theater life, are well cast. Portrayed by Richard Ooms, a veteran of the Guthrie Theatre who worked with Mamet in the 1976 New York production of The Duck Variations, Robert's role in the early scenes is preposterously mannered, qualities that Ooms's performance revels in. Ear-pulling, mouthing, mugging, leading with his long chin, and smoothing back disappearing white hair with his left palm are all flourishes with which Ooms frequently (perhaps too frequently) punctuates his speeches in scene 1. The pauses-for-effect are self-important and too long, even for Mamet pauses. Such over-the-top posturing is risky, particularly when played against the genuineness, openness and willing malleability which a fresh-faced Jim Lichtscheidl brings to his realization of John. Lichtscheidl's goofy adolescence and smiling adoration seem subservient but sincere. John knows he's getting valuable tutoring from an accomplished artist and is willing to fawn a bit for the privilege, though he visibly wearies later. While the actors do not seem particularly well matched, on balance both bring depth to their roles, transforming each character palpably before our eyes.

The same word, uttered in the same context--Robert's "Goodnight" to John at the stage door--both opens and closes the play. It is the ebullience and swagger of the first leave-taking and the despair and resignation of the final one that signifies a role reversal, the passing of a mantle, a shifting of the sands of time. Robert has aged; John has matured. John's initial deference to Robert in scene 1, shy praise tentatively proffered for Robert's performance that night, becomes huffy concession to Robert in scene 8 ("I accept the comment in the spirit in which it was, I am sure, intended"), impatient aggravation by scene 17 ("Would you please shut up?"), and ugly offense by scene 22 ("Use your own towels from now on").

John's life increasingly extends beyond the confines of the theater in which Robert seeks to nurture and coddle him. John sports a new sweater that Robert envies and has phone conversations and dinner dates that exclude Robert. Ooms and Lichtscheidl chart this shift in power and dependence with vocal facility, from Ooms's sonorous and magisterial instruction of John in scene 5 to his tinny and sadly blathering drunkenness of scene 23; from Lichtscheidl's childlike, adoring flattery of Robert in scene 1 to his deep-voiced, abrupt dismissal of him in scene 26. There is a tense strength, a subtle menace in Lichtscheidl's voice as the play ends, a weak and broken softness in Ooms's final lines.

Both set and costume design effectively accommodate the twenty-six scene shifts. The production's rapid, high-concept sensibility has a painterly stasis, like a series of Edward Hopper moments. A trolley draped with a paint cloth upstage, a gas floor lamp stage right, contorted trash can stage left, and black backdrop are the simple props of the first scene. Succeeding scenes are each marked by at least one prominent visual enhancement: lights dimmed and smoky for the lifeboat scene or nostalgically rosy for the autumn invalid scene; green surgical garb and a patient for the hospital scene; coordinated business suits, military uniforms, or pastel brocade vests and wigs for others.

Unlike the Goodman Theatre's early production, where backstage and onstage scenes were distinguished by a second curtain and by the actors' turning away from the audience while "onstage," Boehlke embraces the audience in his small theater more immediately. In scene 23, for example, while John is rehearsing on a darkened stage, Robert utters his first pained and drunken speech from the rear of the house and staggers gradually forward. In scene 24, where a more happily besotted Robert flubs his lines during the surgical operation and John stomps offstage after his sotto voice prompts do no good, unflappable Robert gestures good-naturedly directly to the audience and drawls, "Does anybody have a script?"

Taking his cue from Robert's definition of sound as "the crown prince of phenomena" in scene 5, Boehlke embellishes Mamet's script with an elaborate soundscape of music, noise and voices. Whimsical birdsongs cease when an imaginary window is cranked shut in the invalid scene. Buzzers and amplified typewriter sounds add staccato urgency to the lawyer scene right before a marital infidelity is revealed. Unscripted loudspeaker cues during backstage scenes instruct Robert and John about the day's rehearsal schedule or urge them to "places" onstage. Robert utters his monologue at the barricades in scene 16 with bravado, over a swelling crescendo of brass and bells. The plaintive, languid, or percussive viola and piano strains that moodily open and close most of the scenes were sensitively composed by Roberta Carlson.

University of Minnesota