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A Life in the Theatre

a Drama
by David Mamet

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 3590

SHOWING : October 28, 2009 - November 15, 2009



The Alliance is thrilled to have Broadway legend André De Shields headline in David Mamet’s (Glengarry Glen Ross, Wag the Dog, American Buffalo) blistering and darkly comic tale of two actors. One is on top of his game, but searching for fulfillment. The other will do anything to advance his career. Watch as nightly, they transform from drama to farce, from friends to enemies…and that’s just backstage.

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The Full Mamet
by Dedalus
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Please Note: This review first appeared in

In an ironic twist, the Alliance Theatre has staged David Mamet’s 1977 “love letter to theatre” (“A Life in the Theatre”) in a manner that epitomizes everything that is wrong with 21st-Century over-produced Broadway junk, guaranteed to send the casual viewer screaming from all theatres forever. Using a concept that cuts Mamet off at the knees, director Robert O’Hara has substituted spectacle for anecdotal amusement, and has apparently encouraged his two-man cast to drain all recognizable humanity from their bickering straw-man characters as well as their “on-stage” performances.

To start with, this was never one of Mamet’s better efforts (even from the Early Mamet era that gave it its genesis). An extended one-act, it offers a series of back-stage and on-stage glimpses at an older and younger actor, contemplating their “life in the theatre” and essentially pontificating on what it means to be an actor. Thirty years later, Mamet’s observations are fairly shallow and pretentious, his characters thin and bordering on stereotype, and his dialog not quite reaching the poetic vulgarity of his more assured mature work. Still, when mounted with energy and enthusiasm, this piece can be an amusing diversion filled with enough recognizable backstage anecdotes to keep any theatre geek happy. If staged as a “period” piece, it could even carry some nostalgic poignancy for an era in which a small professional theatre could actually succeed financially.

This time, though, too many bone-headed choices destroy anything likeable about the piece. The script is about two actors in a small repertory company, the sort of Equity House that survives with done-to-death classics, cheesy melodramas, and insipid comedies. The glimpses we get of the plays being performed by these two are one of the delights of the script – affectionate pastiches of dinner theatre cash cows. To judge by the glimpses Mr. O’Hara shows us here, this particular theatre must have a budget exceeding NASA’s. In one scene, a character wears (for no reason I can discern) a breathtakingly beautiful autumn-colored cloak with a train the breadth of the Woodruff stage. The cost of such a costume is surely more than the combined yearly budgets of any three of Atlanta’s smaller professional theatres. Totally lost was the scripted dialog set at a British Tea. In another scene, an LED-light curtain gives a geometrically abstract background for no reason, I suppose, other than because it “looks neat.” In still another, a clumsy surgery with a patient obviously modeled on the game “Operation” spews realistic guts and gore, but leaves out the details of the older actor’s fading memory and struggle for lines.

In essence, every scene seemed to have been designed to take full advantage of all the computer-generated gimmickry big-budget houses have at their disposal. In essence, every scene seemed to avoid any attempt at making the two characters remotely understandable as human beings or even recognizable as members of the Acting Profession.

The idea of keeping backstage business in full view of the audience is a good one – a peek “behind the scenes” as it were. However, rather than devising script-appropriate Stage Manager “calls,” this production takes the lazy way out and just pipes the Alliance’s own “calls” through the sound system, most of which are totally inappropriate to the sort of theatre supposedly represented on stage. I realize it’s attempting to make the scene “a theatre very much like this one,” but didn’t anyone realize that a theatre like the Alliance is not exactly what this play is about?

In another failed attempt to break down the fourth wall, the scene in which the older actor watches from off stage as the younger actor rehearses has star André DeShields walk through the house, literally stepping over the legs of Alliance patrons in his journey from House Left to House Right. This has to be the worst blocking choice I’ve seen. Ever! Leaving aside the risk of stepping on patrons’ feet or having the actor trip and injure himself, didn’t the director realize that an empty house and a full house are two completely different creatures, that substituting one for the other in the service of some badly-thought-through concept just destroys every credibility any actor could have built?

As disappointed as I was by the performances of Mr. DeShields (of “The Full Monty” and “The Wiz” on Broadway) and Ariel Shafir (of “The Underpants” at the Alliance), I am hesitant to assign blame to them – I know (and have seen) them do much better work than this. But, all their lines were delivered in a portentous monotone, all their emotions were kept fully under wraps. I even had the sense they were saying words they didn’t really understand. The sort of vibrant and true-to-life rhythms that Mamet’s dialog usually evokes were totally absent here. If I can’t hold them responsible for these lapses, I can only assume they were part of Mr. O’Hara’s “Grand Concept,” a Brechtian pretense that deifies alienation and eschews empathy and emotion. The problem is that that is totally inappropriate for this particular work.

All the razzle-dazzle and technical artistry on display definitely deserves commendation – that impressive robe by itself is the product of a costumer at the peak of his craft. Even the intimate dressing room was a triumph of execution, if not design (far too clean and tidy for any dressing room I’ve ever seen). The transitions from backstage to onstage were smooth and rapid, and helped overcome some of the plodding pace of the scenes themselves.

Just to sum up, Mr. Mamet’s non-fiction essays tell more about a life in the theatre (and in a more interesting way) than anything he put into this script thirty years ago. I’ve seen it done well by small venues with limited budgets. But, updating it to contemporary times with effects that upstage the characters are choices that drain the piece of whatever charm it has left.

A life in the theatre? This play showed no life that I could discern, and was set in a theater that couldn’t possible exist anywhere in this world.

What were they thinking?

-- Brad Rudy (

Ah, but by uppermiddlebrow
the awful production inspired one of your most entertaining reviews ever!

Thanks, too, for wiping away my regret over missing the play.


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