David Mamet’s 1977 work “A Life in the Theatre,” a tribute to the life of the repertory actor — so unglamorous, so lonely — is a small, intimate play that has been gussied up with name actors and overblown production values. The Pasadena Playhouse’s production of this series of short scenes about the morphing relationship between an old actor (Hal Holbrook) and a young one (Rick Stear) makes its 90 minutes seem interminable. The last thing to do is blame Holbrook or Stear for this misfire. The actors do have their moments, and without their professionalism the evening would be excruciating, which it’s fortunately not.
When nothing seems to be happening on stage, when the shape of a play remains undiscovered, when a playing style seems just plain off, when the changing of costumes and the shifting of sets seem to dominate the players — the director, in this case Michael Michetti, must be blamed. He’s the real culprit in this non-melodrama and his production feels like a record playing at ultra-slow speed.
In “A Life in the Theatre,” as in some of his other early work, Mamet’s dramatic cadence extends beyond his famous flair for staccato dialogue to the rhythm of the 20-odd scenes, some of which last only a few seconds. The scenes are supposed to end in blackouts — often abrupt ones that are funny in themselves. But here, the stage never goes black, and the scenes never have the sharp edges intended.
Based on artistic director Sheldon Epps’ program intro, this “Life” is staged as a recognition of the backstage workers. Stage managers wander the space in the over-long interstitials, overseeing the flying in of flats or the sliding in of the backstage dressing room set. Mitch Greenhill’s annoyingly repetitive music — which sounds like a mix of the “Seinfeld” and “Murder She Wrote” themes — blares.
There are moments when the production manages a few laughs, particularly in the plays-within-a-play scenes that make fun of various theatrical styles, from the English sex farce to the war drama to the Russian existential tragedy. Costume designer Scott A. Lane provides a nice array of garbs that look like they’ve been sitting in a costume warehouse forever.
Ultimately, though, everything here is so busy that the scenes between Holbrook and Stear, especially the backstage ones that form the crux of the drama, seem secondary to the set from Gary Wissmann, who has chosen the elaborate when the simple would have been better. Everything seems to get in the actors’ way, and maybe that’s why the characters themselves never really take shape.
Holbrook is known for portrayals in which he’s gracious, unpretentious, all-American; to play this walking oversized ego with an even more oversized streak of insecurity, he needs to go a lot further early on, saving Robert’s vulnerabilities to be exposed later. Stear never quite manages to flesh out up-and-comer John, relying too heavily on a single expression of patience always on the verge of exasperation.