Kinder, Gentler Mamet — Via Patrick Stewart, T.R. Knight — Preps for B’way

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David Mamet was still in the concluding year of his 20s when Chicago’s Goodman Theatre produced his play A Life in the Theatre in February 1977. The playwright’s distinctive works Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo were already under his belt, of course, so his iconoclastic style was becoming familiar, but think: Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow, Oleanna and The Cryptogram, among other plays, were still yet to come.

A Life in the Theatre, which tells the tale of two actors, one younger, one older, and how the younger eventually comes to outshine and outdistance the older, then ran for nine months Off-Broadway, from October 1977 to July 1978, at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel). The late, great Gerald Gutierrez directed (boy, should the American theater keeping missing him or what?), and the play starred another superlative actor who, alas, has slipped off the scope — Ellis Rabb — as the older actor, and Peter Evans as the younger one.

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It was during the New York production of the play that Mamet turned 30. What that unforgettably transitional moment in a man’s life in general, or Mamet’s life in particular, and what any of that had to do with A Life in the Theatre I cannot say for sure. Maybe it was nothing at all. But given the play’s nature and theme, it’s tone and outlook, it strikes me as a moment to have witnessed: Mamet appreciating his acclaim but not yet being so enamored of it. Maybe that’s why, in the case of this play, he actually allowed hints of the wistful to form droplets on the page. The old generation yielding inexorably to the new — it, too, is a melancholy rite-of-passage we all experience in this life, in or out of the theater, at first on one end of the dynamic, then later on on the other. For Mamet, that’s enough to count as sweetness.

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Broadway producer Jeffrey Richards, who has been systematically honoring the house of Mamet (2005’s revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, 2008’s revival of Speed-the-Plow, 2008’s November, 2009’s Race), is bringing A Life in the Theatre to Broadway for the first time ever this fall, starring Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight. No doubt Richards chose to mount the play, in part, because Stewart made a hit of it in the West End, opposite Joshua Jackson, back in 2005. The Broadway production, which starts previews Sept. 21, opens Oct. 12 and runs through Jan. 2, marks Knight’s first appearance on the Great White Way in seven years (who remembers 2003’s tetchy Tartuffe at Roundabout?) and marks Stewart’s first appearance in two years — since his communistic, creepily culinary Macbeth.

Recently, Richards held a widely-attended, blogger-only meet-and-greet with Stewart and Knight. While the setting — an outdoor deck at a Midtown bar, changed at the last minute from a swanky Midtown hotel — delivered more ambient noise than ambiance, the actors were undaunted. Forgive my mild critique, but I really do wish these events weren’t all about the shill, the assumption that the bloggers are there just to dutifully cut and paste quotes. Can’t we get a little bit more imaginative than that? (Neil Pepe, artistic director of Atlantic Theatre Company, is directing the productions and did a yeoman’s job moderating the all-too-brief Q&A.)

Here, meanwhile, are some interesting quotes that I — yes — cut and pasted.

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Stewart marveled at the fact that the play “simply rattles along” in 26 scenes. It’s not “heavy on narrative,” he said, but it does tell the story “of the dynamic between a young actor at the start of his career and an older actor in what begins to feel like the twilight of his career, and how that dymamic changes, shifts and grows…”

Knight’s instinct, cued up by Stewart, was to hurtle the discussion out of the crotchety realm of theater-people-talking-about-theater-people-talking-about-theater, which is almost inevitably something that only theater people care about. He likened Mamet’s play to situations mere mortals experience in their own lives. What actors do, in other words, is no different from working in an office — “being thrown together with someone you don’t know, that you don’t have much in common with [and] being forced to live together as any coworkers do [and] spend a lot of time with each other.” Smart analogy, and nice touch.

Stewart was especially animated by Knight’s comparison, in fact. “It’s a crazy existence for grownups,” he protested in his distinctively mellifluous baritone. “My partner doesn’t know a lot about this business and struggles to comprehend what we do. We inhabit this make-believe world, this very expensive nursery — thank you very much, Jeffrey [Richards] — that we are playing in, where we role-play… That’s what we do. We take words on the page and make them life.”

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One of the niftiest questions asked of the actors related to backstage rituals. Neither Stewart nor Knight wanted to get into what they do backstage, but Stewart cleverly turned the topic from the specific to the rhetorical: “Have you ever seen what actors do immediately before stepping out into that light in front of [their] eyes? Do you know what is happening in that moment backstage? Well, you gotta see. You know what we’re actually doing in the dressing room while we’re getting ready? Do you know what we do between shows? Do you know what we do when the show is over? Do you know when we’re down, when we’re up?” As Stewart said, you gotta see.

Knight added that, as a young actor in Minneapolis, he had a “series” of mentors, so the crux of the play, emotionally, sits right in his pocket. What’s interesting about “the mentor-mentee relationship,” he said, is “eventually you have to go out on your own and that mentor/mentee relationship has to change. If it doesn’t change, it dies…” Quite true.

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And the greater point of the play, Stewart said, is that “live theater matters. Live theater [indicates] a society’s strength of culture and it’s important for the multitude of ways in which it spotlights the contemporary conditions as well as the contemporary conditions seen through a historical spectrum — and that’s what David’s play is.”

We’ll find out more in October.

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