Most actors know an older member of the profession who can recall a great bygone era of the stage. He'll be stuffed with stories about Sandra Bernhardt, or Henry Irving, or Tennessee Williams drunk in New York; he'll enthrall young players with stories of a lost Golden Age, and then, on brains tenderized by such nostalgia, press burning brands of advice. “He will speak to you about your performance and the performances of others,” said Sanford Meisner, quoted in notes by David Mamet, “and he will generalize to you, based on his experiences and intuitions, about the laws of the stage. Ignore this man.”
Mamet wrote a play about him — a thin but funny play — which the Aurora Theater has revived for its last production at the Berkeley City Club. A Life in the Theatre follows two actors through years of rep-company shows. One actor is young and improving, the other middle-aged and waning. The older one, Robert, gives quirky but casual-seeming advice at the makeup mirror, in the costume closet, between scenes, and sometimes onstage. Warren Keith plays him brilliantly. He's tall, thick, and stoop-shouldered, with a baffled expression etched on his jowly face; even when he wants to be low-key Robert's crotchets and eccentricities are impossible to hide. Maybe he's gay? Does he secretly lust after John, the young actor? Or does he really believe all the metaphysics and bland commonplaces he recites for John's improvement?
Early in the play he praises one of John's scenes by comparing it to “a walnut.”
JOHN: How do you mean?
ROBERT: It was … meaty on the inside and — [nervous pause] tight all around.
Michael Shipley's performance as John starts with a slavish devotion to Mamet's mannered rhythms, but improves as John himself grows up. At first he's just a nervous kid; later John learns to disregard Robert's carping, and as Mamet offers more character to work with Shipley grows into the role. His best scene has John rehearsing a monologue in an empty theater while Robert interrupts him, drunkenly, from the wings. After the boy matures into a real actor, poor old Robert grows desperate and bizarre, until his worldly wisdom resembles a tactic in a psychological war. “Never take advice from people,” Robert says with a straight face, “who have anything but your eventual success in mind.”
The play is short — 90 minutes with no intermission. Director Nancy Carlin pays close attention to the comic routines, which after all are the best parts. With facial gestures and postures John and Robert bicker wordlessly onstage (during their fictional shows) about blocking, cues, or forgotten lines. “Maybe tonight you can be a little less …” recommends Robert before a play, leaving John to guess what he means; onstage, when John fails to be a little less of whatever it is, Robert flubs a line, and accuses John's character of being a pregnant woman. In a play about two surgeons at the operating table, when Robert jumps ahead with a comment about a curious growth on the spleen, John hisses, “I can't see a curious growth on his spleen for some time yet.”
Still, compared to other, more substantial shows in an Aurora season, A Life in the Theatre is a finger exercise. Mamet can be undeceptively simple. The only surprise here is the fact that some touches are so perfunctory, like Chad William Owens' backdrop. After a while you make out the shape of a mezzanine and a receding aisle in a darkened auditorium — the view John and Robert have from the stage — but the lights are so varicolored and their shape so odd the scenery looks, at first, like a ghostly UFO. It's as if the last show in the Aurora's tenure at the City Club (the troupe moves into its own theater on Addison Street next fall) were designed to be a small, easy gesture, a little bagatelle to acknowledge what the troupe's been up to for the last nine years, before its life in a full-scale theater begins.