By Wendell Brock
David Mamet’s 1977 play, “A Life in the Theatre, ” peers into the backstage relationship between an aging diva of the “the-a-tuh” and his protege. It has often been described as a “love letter” to the craft, a witty insider’s look at the pathologies of the profession — the excess of vanity and egotism, the endless thirst for attention and adoration.
Those stereotypes don’t go unexploited in the Alliance Theatre’s new production. Directed by Robert O’Hara, it’s an odd-couple affair that finds Broadway’s Andre De Shields giving a swishy, over-the-top turn as senior thespian Robert while New York actor Ariel Shafir plays the acolyte John, a sweetly ministering puppy dog who just might turn out to be as coolly manipulative as his mentor.
Truth is, this is minor Mamet, a flimsy, loosely connected series of 26 scenes that alternates between the actors’ backstage post-mortems and hissy fits and their real-time work on “the boards.” As imagined by O’Hara and designed by Clint Ramos, the show clutters the story’s one kernel of truth — that theater is nothing more than words on a page and a human actor or two — with garish window dressing and flamboyant interpretations of Mamet’s material.
O’Hara laces the tale with gratuitous, unscripted homoerotic tensions and uses a revolving rectangular box to pivot between the private inner sanctum of the stars’ dressing room and the outer world of their scene partnerings. O’Hara gussies up Mamet’s little plays-within-the-play with vampire camp, sci-fi operating tables and pimp posturing. Which may seem ironic, considering Robert’s reflections that “Style is a paper bag. Its only shape comes from within.”
It must be stated that the show functions as a giddy showcase for the transformative brilliance of De Shields, who gets choice moments as a rasping vampire in a milelong red train and a wheezing, Blaxploitation gangsta caricature. Shafir’s performance is limp from start to finish.
You could make a case that “A Life In the Theatre” is a devastating portrait of the isolation, fear and paranoia of the actor’s psyche. I wouldn’t believe a word of it. This is a classic example of the emperor’s new clothes. Choosing a two-man play may seem like a smart move, given the economy. This, however, is a risky, puzzling, borderline irresponsible choice for the Alliance.
“A Life in the Theatre”
8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. Saturdays. 2:30 and 7 p.m.
Sundays. Through Nov. 15. $20-$45. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree
St. N.E. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org