So many good things can be said about parts of A Life in the Theatre. The acting is strong and engaging. The set is highly creative. And both lighting and sound are transformative.
Still as much as I’m moved to praise parts of the new Alliance Theatre work, I was disappointed by the production as a whole.
A Life in the Theatre, written by David Mamet and directed by Robert O’Hara, is a 90-minute exploration of two actors’ lives on stage. Mamet, winner of the 1984 Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics Circle Award, certainly knows the goings on onstage and offstage. He’s authored a wealth of plays, including Boston Marriage, Faustus and Glengarry Glenn Ross, films and several acting books.
This is basically a two-man show but with a crew of stage hands who wordlessly appear on stage to manipulate the set, dress and undress the actors and provide props. Veteran actor and director Andre De Shields, whose Broadway debut was in the 1969 production of Hair, is ideal in the role of Robert, an actor who has made the theater his life and loves to pontificate and share his views and criticisms. The award-winning De Shields brings a power and dignity to the role that along with his body language and theatrical touches brilliantly convey Robert’s passion for the stage.
Ariel Shafir, who took on the role of poet Versati in the Alliance’s production of Steve Martin’s The Underpants, holds his own as John, a young actor who can’t wait to move from the theater to bigger things.
The play explores the relationship between the older man and the younger one, which shifts from advisor/student to contemporaries to lovers to adversaries. All this plays out during rapid-fire scene changes, in which the De Shields and Shafir move between being Robert and John and the roles Robert and John take on in numerous plays.
I found myself getting lost more than once and unsure if their dialogue was between the actors (Robert and John) or the characters the actors were playing. However, I suspect that the large number of actors who were in the audience on the evening that I viewed the performance were more in tune with the nuances of A Life in the Theatre.
A Life in the Theater runs through Nov. 15 at the Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. For more information, visit www.alliancetheatre.org.