What? A rueful, affectionate Mamet? A Life In The Theatre, a Fringe review

David Ley and Sebastien Ley in A Life In the Theatre. Edmonton Fringe 2019.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A Life in the Theatre (Stage 28, The Playhouse)

In theory, letting David Mamet loose to satirize the world of theatre and its practitioners is a bit like offering a buffet of legs to a shark. If I were an actor, it would give me nightmares.

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But A Life in the Theatre, one of the earliest Mamets, isn’t the bloodletting you might imagine from the author of such foul-mouthed, viciously carnivorous stage outings as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross. Mamet’s comedy of two actors — a crumbling veteran and an ambitious upstart in a low-budget rep company— does have its cruelties, true. But the tone is rueful, poignant, not usually part of the signature Mamet palette. It’s almost affectionate, for god’s sake, about the all-consuming world of pretend and fragile egos, its pomposity and hyperboles, its rituals and traditions, its malicious subtexts, its secret rancour.

In Kathleen Weiss’s Vault production, which cleverly moves from dressing room to rehearsal to stage, the father-son duo of David Ley and Sebastien Ley set forth the tensions between collaboration and competition in the double-portrait of the actors. The powers (and memory) of the older Robert are waning. Young John’s career appetites are getting sharper in inverse proportion to his tolerance for patronizing advice from his aging stage mate.

Robert, a bit of a windbag, is prone to lofty pronouncements about the theatre and life. “We must not be afraid of process,” he declares. “We are explorers of the soul.” He’s fond of beginning thus: “When you’ve been in the theatre as long as I have….”

The opening scene will make theatre pros smile (and wince a little). When the curtain comes down, Robert and John’s offstage repartee, starts with positive review of the highlights. There was lots of applause, ergo the audience must have been “acute, discerning.” Amusingly, it doesn’t take long for the knives to come out, but the jabs are sneaky. 

The Leys, father and son, manage the nuances in this interplay with considerable dexterity under Weiss’s direction. And they rise to a series of parody scenes of assorted genres, from dramas of marital infidelity to swashbucklers and war melodramas, with comic zest. 

“I loved the staircase scene tonight. Just like a poem,” says Robert, wheedling for kudos and a dinner invitation, and getting irritation instead from his young colleague. “I must tell you this about the theatre …” he begins. But John isn’t listening. He’s working on an audition piece.

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