David Mamet’s “A Life in the Theatre” is a disappointment on the screen, despite the presence of high-pedigree talent on both sides of the camera. Turner Broadcasting presentation, world premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, will have its cable TV debut Oct. 9 on TNT. Foreign theatrical prospects appear slim, but lead players Jack Lemmon and Matthew Broderick likely will guarantee some shelf life via homevid.
At best, pic is a slight improvement over the play’s previous TV adaptation, an unfortunately literal-minded videotaping (produced in the late 1970s for PBS) that’s memorable only for recording the brilliant performances of Ellis Rabb and the late Peter Evans, stars of the original 1977 off-Broadway production.
Lemmon and Broderick are the stars here, playing two members of a second-rate repertory company in an unnamed modern-day city. Robert (Lemmon) is a grandiloquent old pro who clearly senses, but never acknowledges, his career is in decline. John (Broderick) is a talented newcomer whose awed respect for Robert curdles into impatience and annoyance while they share a dressing room during a long theatrical season.
“A Life in the Theatre” alternates between excerpts from onstage productions (some very amusingly evocative of Chekhov and other greats) and elliptical episodes of offstage conversations between the two actors. The film, like the play, can be read as a metaphor for teacher-student and parent-child relationships. Or it can simply be enjoyed as Mamet’s love letter to the temple where he works his magic.
On either level, this film version is a misfire.
For his first effort as a filmmaker, Gregory Mosher, the veteran legit director who staged the play’s first Chicago production, has done his best to open up Mamet’s two-character, two-set drama. With the considerable assistance of production designer David Wasco and cinematographer Freddie Francis, Mosher creates a low-rent universe of neighborhood bars, seedy hotels and backstage dressing rooms in vividly realistic detail.
This turns out to be a major miscalculation, however, in that Mamet’s meticulously stylized dialogue sounds jarringly off-key — and, occasionally, downright ludicrous — in such a realistically drawn environment. Worse, by taking a realistic approach, Mosher underscores the artificiality of having Lemmon and Broderick be the only ones on screen who ever speak.
Mosher also has erred in tipping the play’s balance of sympathy so obviously in favor of the older actor essayed by Lemmon. But Lemmon, too, merits criticism for relying so heavily on pathos-inducing shtick, and forbeing so transparent in his efforts to make Robert a tragic figure. The performance is all the more dismaying when compared to Lemmon’s wonderful work last year in the Mamet-scripted “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
With the deck stacked so heavily in favor of his co-star, Broderick provides a genuinely pleasant surprise with his fine, effectively sharp-edged performance as John. His evolution from callow, eager-to-please acolyte to self-assured, nakedly ambitious professional is impressive in a non-showy manner, much like Broderick’s seriously underrated performance in “Glory.”
The best parts of this “Life in the Theatre” are the surefire comedy bits — the brief scenes of onstage disasters involving missed cues and defective props. But these are rare moments in a 78-minute production that seems much longer.