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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER REVIEW

Mamet Explores the Perilous, Powerful Mission Actors Face

The Limelight's revival of 'A Life in the Theatre' looks at the passing down of wisdom and the actor's art.

May 30, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Robert and John, the actor characters in David Mamet's "A Life in the Theatre," only appear to be serving a dying art. Mamet's faith in the theater has always had the whiff of the religious about it, and acting is the closest thing he can think of to a kind of religious order: training, discipline, sacrifice, serving the congregation-audience. In Mamet's play, the church of the theater isn't dying because the younger John (Seth Gillum) is following in the footsteps of the older Robert (Barry Lynch).

Mamet knows that there is no easy formula for the passing down of wisdom. Robert also learns some things from John, as they both ply their art in a repertory company. They do a different play every night. They squabble. They pal around. John grows more confident. Robert begins to feel, as he puts it, "tired."

So "A Life in the Theatre" isn't only about death, it is also about birth. Typically, then, the casting of Robert and John emphasizes an age gulf. (Jack Lemmon and Matthew Broderick, for example, were paired for the television version.) In director Lawrence Pressman's revival at the Limelight Theatre, though, Lynch isn't old enough to play some kind of elder statesman, and Gillum isn't some gangly kid. There's a difference here, but not a gulf.

It makes for a subtly different take on the play, which is still one of Mamet's sketchiest and softest, and could use this kind of rethinking. As Robert and John move from the green room where they dress for their roles, to the play itself, and then maybe a post-performance critique, they slowly become peers, partners, a pair. Lynch and Gillum are themselves a pair of fresh, alert actors who make this kind of chemistry between equals work.

Lynch, for one, is too funny, loud and electric to ever telegraph that Robert is tottering on ever-weakening thespian legs. He carries most of the comedy: a scene where Robert must cover on stage for John, who's fluffing his lines, becomes a delightful bit of comic terror. His Robert doesn't seem to be living off past stage glories, but has some ambition left.

This makes him more impressive for John, though Gillum's performance avoids any kind of fawning. Instead, his John is already a confident actor, though a little rough around the edges. Still, neither Gillum, Lynch nor Pressman can quite avoid the campiness of the on-stage scenes in some of the obviously poor plays the actors have to put on--which is also the weak link in Mamet's playwriting. If theater is generally this bad and/or silly, you begin to think, it deserves to die.

On the other hand, Pressman's staging lends a charm to the theater-making going on in Mamet's play. Terry J. Evans' set is a jumble of fake flats, trick props and a cornucopia of stage toys, and Richard D. Falconer's light design deliberately draws our attention to the physical lights themselves--those heavy electrical fixtures just above the actors' heads. Something may fall down or crash, but somehow, the actors will have to get through it. Everything at the Limelight reminds us of this simple, yet powerful mission.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "A Life in the Theatre."

* WHERE: Limelight Playhouse, 10634 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 7 p.m. Sundays.

* HOW MUCH: $12-$15.

* CALL: (213) 661-0318.

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