By Martin F. Kohn
An older actor and a younger actor in a theater play an older actor and a younger actor in a theater, but David Mamet’s compact early play “A Life in the Theatre” is bigger than it appears to be.
It’s like a muffin tin; no, it’s like washing a muffin tin: It looks like one simple thing to do, but it’s really a dozen. Besides the main story about the two actors, you have glimpses of (generally dreadful) plays within the play, each with its own beginning, middle and end. Mamet makes it all look easy, as do David L. Regal and Joel Frazee in Arthur J. Beer’s production at the UDM Theatre Company.
The premise is simple. A veteran actor (Regal) and a relative newcomer (Frazee) share a dressing room at a repertory theater where one night they might play desperate sailors adrift in a lifeboat, the next they might be surgeons in an operating room. Over the course of what must be a few seasons (it’s never made clear) the two become friends, or at least good colleagues.
For all his professional assuredness and tendency to dispense advice pompously (“We must not be afraid of process”), the older actor is insecure and lonely. His whole life is in the theater.
Mamet spells out the insecurity – the older actor is forever fishing for compliments – but only sketches the outlines of the loneliness, trusting actors, whoever they may be, to fill in the details. Regal does so with exquisite subtlety, conveying much with the way he speaks and moves and looks.
The younger actor, tentative as his career begins, gradually gains confidence. The actor playing him must show this subtly or the balance of the play will go out of whack. Frazee is up to the task – at one point he expresses how he’s feeling like an equal by giving the older actor a playful but not too big go-get-’em swat on the behind.
Each play within the play requires its own costumes and lighting, tasks executed effectively by Melinda Pacha and Mark Choinksi, respectively.
Speaking of that, “A Life in the Theatre” celebrates the craft, rather than the art, of theater. The snippets of plays within the play are deliberately melodramatic and overripe. No matter; our troupers soldier on, grateful for challenging work and the chance to connect with something beyond themselves.
Beer and all others associated with the production seem to appreciate this. Audiences will, too.
‘A Life in the Theatre’
UDM Theatre Company at Marygrove College Theatre, 8425 W. McNichols Rd, Detroit. Friday-Sunday through Feb. 20. $18. 313-993-3270. http://theatre.udmercy.edu.