Life Sneaks Up on You: ‘A Life in the Theatre’ at Kinetic

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, say Freud fans, but sometimes the symbolism is right out front. Old Robert (L) and young John are played by Sam Tsoutsouvas and Joseph McGranaghan in ‘A Life in the Theatre.’

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, say Freud fans, but sometimes the symbolism is right out front. Old Robert (L) and young John are played by Sam Tsoutsouvas and Joseph McGranaghan in ‘A Life in the Theatre.’

There are zany comedies and there are sneaky comedies. A sneakily intriguing one can be found if you wend your way down to the subterranean theater deep in the Cathedral of Learning. That is where Kinetic Theatre presents David Mamet’s too-seldom-seen 1977 play A Life in the Theatre, through June 30. 

On one level this is metatheater: a play about plays, with only two actors, each playing the role of an actor. Old-school veteran Robert, acted by Sam Tsoutsouvas, and young new-waver John (Joseph McGranaghan) are paired as members of a repertory company. In a series of brief sketches we see them chumming around behind the scenes, rehearsing and preparing together, and performing together in scenes from (imaginary) plays. These playlets within the play are maudlin, overripe melodramas. The men are forced to ham it up, and occasionally they screw up—which is where some, but by no means all, of the humor comes from. 

A Life in the Theatre operates on a different planet than the rollicking show-biz show Noises OffTime and again, the comedy just sneaks up on you. It may surface while Robert is philosophizing pompously about the the-a-ter, or trying to impart teachable moments to John, who already knows his hawks from handsaws. And though parts of the play are over-the-top wacky, much of it consists of watching how life sneaks up and whacks the odd couple while they’re trying to make it work. 

Of Pythons and Sausages

Some sketches seem to channel vintage Monty Python. In these, Robert plays weirdly with language whilst expounding on a theme—“Brittle? … overly brittle?”—and going farther and farther ‘round the bend. The progression gets the audience going from inward chuckles to little snort-laughs to head-shaking laughs, a nice momentum. 

But, whereas most Python sketches were pure parody—they made you laugh by amplifying the nonsense of life—there is meaning packed into this play’s mirth. When Robert declaims that theater is like a fine sausage, “meaty on the inside and tight all around,” he’s right: That’s the way good theater is. 

And that’s the way A Life in the Theatre is, mostly. To this reviewer, a handful of scenes in the middle felt sort of so-what and I wished Mamet had written that part tighter. Should you feel the same, stay tuned. A lot of the best is yet to come. Among the play-within-a-play scenes, you figure that sooner or later there’ll be one where an actor forgets a line and is groping desperately for it. There are actually two, and the second is a miasmic comic masterpiece. 

Seriously Now

As for meat within the sausage, A Life has an underlying story arc. Tensions between the characters build and play out, driven by more than their age difference. Robert’s career has peaked, far short of the top of Everest. John is an actor on the rise, readying himself to leave base camp and move on. Throughout the play it becomes fascinating to watch how Robert tries to cope with this and how John responds.

Robert’s coping tactics escalate from inventing elaborate self-excuses (“I make a fetish of my imperfections”) to microaggression, to full-frontal envy and spite. John takes it in stride, then lashes back, then reaches out to reconcile. What’s sweet is that the two guys are shown to be genuinely fond of each other. And they are both, in their own ways, likeable characters, which leads you to care about what will happen to them. 

The friction between the men gets hot but not downright ugly. And it’s funny, but not forced-funny. In a chat after the show I attended, director Andrew Paul said the latter was a conscious choice. He said that although the script can easily be milked for laughs, he and the actors opted to “keep the gravitas” and play it straight to life. Smart choice. It’s always more fun to watch people being inadvertently funny when they’re being serious than to watch them try to be funny. 

He's going over the top! Despite its sneakiness, the play does have moments of sheer madness.

He’s going over the top! Despite its sneakiness, the play does have moments of sheer madness.

The actors are superb. Three years ago Kinetic Theatre staged Oscar and Walt, in which Tsoutsouvas played a grizzled Walt Whitman meeting young Oscar Wilde. He was spot-on believable in the intricate, old-warrior-and-new-dude exchanges of that play and now he’s done it again. Meanwhile McGranaghan, as John, goes well beyond merely standing in as the foil to Robert’s theatricality. He got game: all the moves, from emotions conveyed in subtle facial expressions to getting wild and woolly when the script calls for it. 

Besides which, one scene requires McGranaghan to do about 30 pushups. He executes them perfectly—keeping the body straight as a yardstick, moving down and up as smooth as a piston—and then stands to speak his next lines with no wheezing whatever. That’s tight. 

Altogether, one could call A Life in the Theatre a very “interesting” play. I hesitate to use the word because it’s a vague cliche, often employed as a euphemism for “not so good”— Hey, at least our [vacation, marriage, whatever] was interesting! 

But what the heck. The play is interesting and well written and well performed. The final scenes bring it to a memorable, moving conclusion. Damn the adjectives; enjoy the show. 

Ticket Info, Closing Credits, and What’s Next

David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre runs through June 30 in the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre, located in the basement (Level B) of the Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland. Visit Kinetic Theatre on the web for tickets and further info, perhaps paying special attention to the pay-what-you-want performance on Monday, June 24.

The play is directed by Andrew Paul, Kinetic’s founding artistic director, with scenic design by Jonmichael Bohach, lighting by Christopher Popowich, and sound by Mark Whitehead. Costumes are by Mary Alice Groat, who deserves a shout-out because the actors must repeatedly, rapidly change between scenes, and Groat has given them duds that look good while being slippable into. The technical director is J.C. Bardzil; props are by Alex Keplar, and the stage manager is Cory F. Goddard assisted by Cameron Nickel. 

Next month, Kinetic presents another two-hander by David Mamet. It will be the controversial Oleanna, running July 11 – 28. Mark your calendar but for now, do try A Life in the Theatre. 

Photos by Rocky Raco.

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater and other artistic entertainments for Entertainment Central. 

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