The title of David Mamet’s 1978 caprice assumes altogether unwelcome dimensions in its latest West End revival, which stretches a short evening into what seems like a lifetime in the theater. While there was once a certain charm to the piecemeal segments here struggling to comprise a play, Lindsay Posner’s third major Mamet revival in London in as many seasons leaves “A Life in the Theater” looking sadly stillborn: Trekkies and Creekies — to name the collective followers of co-stars Patrick Stewart and Joshua Jackson — beware.
Mamet’s ode to his chosen profession previously played the Haymarket in 1989 in a production that stays in the memory for the deliciously ripe melancholia of the late Denholm Elliott as Robert, the senior of two characters whom the playwright takes on a collision course of sorts across 80 minutes or so. But with Stewart — too robust and over-emotive by half — sharing the stage with the thoroughly blank Jackson (from “Dawson’s Creek”), a fragile wisp of an evening fairly wilts under the glare, leaving what now looks terribly dated about Mamet’s conceit to do the rest.
The Elliott version Anglicized the script, which might have been the way forward on this occasion, too. (Mamet has in any case thought of the play as his “English piece.”) While intended as a hymn to the repertory regimen in an unnamed provincial American theater, the play’s various dramatic inserts don’t begin to tally. Are today’s playhouses really doing faux-Chekhov and bowdlerized versions of “Journey’s End,” or medical dramas that make one pine for the sobriety of “MASH?” They’re far more likely — for reasons both aesthetic and financial — to aim their targets elsewhere: toward cosy two-handers like “A Life in the Theater,” for instance.
The play, to be fair, can be considerably less bland than it comes off here. Asserting, “The theater is a closed society,” Robert presents the stage as one of those definably male Mamet milieus, with its own strictures and rules and begetting a very real loneliness. And for all that is stagy and sentimental in the writing (the plays-within-the-play are, with one exception, awful), there’s nothing cosseting about the script’s closing view of Robert advancing toward infirmity and solitude. How nice it would be if Stewart suggested either.
This is a novel take in at least one respect, since it is arguably the first “Life in the Theater” (including its initial Off Broadway go-round) to play up the implicit homoeroticism of Robert’s attraction toward the youthful John, whether latter is stripped to his underpants — as Jackson often is — or not. That tension could conceivably lend a sexual subtext to Robert’s prickliness and insecurity. But on this evidence, it’s no more convincing than the upward trajectory of Jackson’s John, who intones snatches from “Henry V” only marginally less successfully than Stewart’s strong-jawed Robert succumbs to tears.
Posner found a human pulse last season to the potentially programmatic “Oleanna,” with Aaron Eckhart and a galvanic Julia Stiles, and his Matthew Perry/Minnie Driver “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” from the year before was at least beautifully designed. “Life,” by contrast, unfolds against a series of drearily elaborate gray sets from Giles Cadle that do their own stop/start routine as they take us from the dressing room to the wings to the telephone connecting John with that same outside world from which Robert seems sorrowfully, permanently disconnected.
The play’s textual affinities still land, via the Pinteresque cadences of the opening exchange (from what we can tell, John’s language consists largely of monosyllables) and Mamet’s ongoing themes of usurpation and betrayal, here skillfully submerged. Far less adroit are various gags about broken zippers and misplaced props, as if Mamet were attempting his own heavily diluted American equivalent to Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off.” In that comedy, Frayn’s hapless ensemble is busy delivering up a gloriously inept sex farce called “Nothing On.” That title comes to mind more than once while watching “A Life in the Theater” and waiting for something — anything — theatrical to take shape.