Patrick Stewart as Robert is magnificent. He breaks out of his usual stock-in-trade characters (Jean-Luc Picard, Macbeth) and allows himself to be whimsical. He’s very funny in a gym scene where he is working at the barre in tights, leg-warmers and a t-shirt. His plies are more like squats. T.R. Knight (“Grey’s Anatomy”) is terrific as John. In one scene Robert is spying on John from offstage as he attempts to rehearse onstage. Every time he thinks Robert is gone, you hear his voice again. Knight is hilarious as he tentatively resumes rehearsing with one eye on the wings.
Throughout the play we see the actors in various scenes from plays that represent everything from Elizabethan, to Tchekovian, to World-War II doughboys, to medical and legal dramas. The onstage moments are viewed as if standing upstage and looking out towards the audience. Michael Frayn’s Noises Off used the same vantage point in the second act. A mural of the house they are playing to dominates the back wall of the stage.
Stewart’s character is every eccentric actor I ever worked with as a stage manager. He pontificates and struts like a peacock. Knight’s character is the diffident novice who looks up to Robert, at least initially. The situations the two actors encounter in the multiple vignettes that comprise the play include actors forgetting lines, malfunctioning props and actors giving other actors notes.
The night I attended the performance, one of those rare moments that theatre lovers live for happened. And what better play for it to happen in. Stewart and Knight are in a dressing room scene and Stewart is eating cold sesame noodles out of a Chinese take-out container. He gestures with his hand to make a point, and stuck to the end of one of the chopsticks is a lone noodle. It flails about as he gestures; the audience giggles. As Stewart continues the scene, the noodle flies off the chopstick and directly at Knight. The projectile noodle sends Knight over the edge. He can’t keep a straight face and cracks up. He puts his head down in his arms on the dressing table to pull himself together. It took two tries to compose himself. It was made even funnier by Stewart’s next line, “there are those things we can control and those things which we cannot.” With that the audience broke up again, as did Knight. Audiences adore those rare moments when the fourth wall cracks unintentionally.
Neil Pepe’s direction is slightly problematic with this production. As with any Mamet play, the words have a rhythm and tempo. This becomes problematic when Mr. Pepe has the actors leave the stage for costume changes (which need to happen with more haste). This results in the transitions between scenes taking longer than they should. Having the actors exit the stage and then walk back the distance from off-stage to the center of the stage takes up too much time and causes a loss in momentum. Thankfully the scene changes are accompanied by driving, rhythmic, percussive musical interludes by Obadiah Eaves that nicely compliment and even mimic Mamet’s style of writing.
Santo Loquasto’s set becomes a major character in this play. During each scene change it has a ballet all unto its own. Stage hands come out of nowhere with lamps and other props as flats move here and there. While the transition of sets does give the audience something to look at during the costume changes, they also aid in the perception of a lengthy transition between scenes. The costumes by Laura Bauer set the right tone for the various period pieces.
Any problems I have with the production are minor quibbles given such enjoyable performances. At a recent blogger event, Patrick Stewart described A Life in the Theatre as David Mamet’s love-letter to the theatre. I’m happy to say that Stewart and Knight deliver Mamet's love-letter personally.