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Spectacle upstages script in Mamet's A Life in the Theatre

Alliance Theatre offers a lavish production of the intimate, two-actor tribute to the performing arts

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In David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre, veteran actor Robert (André De Shields) asks rising newcomer John (Ariel Shafir), “Could you perhaps do less?” in one of their scenes together. Theater professionals and fans will immediately recognize the insult, scarcely disguised by the veneer of politeness.

“Doing less” isn't a goal of the Alliance Theatre’s production of Mamet’s thorny bouquet to thespians and stage lovers. Challenged to expand an intimate two-actor drama for the Alliance mainstage, director Robert O’Hara turns the show, in part, into a satire of contemporary theatrical spectacle in which more is less. Many scenes take place in the actors' dressing room, but in this spare-no-expense version, the dressing room set elevates out of the floor.

Here, some of Mamet’s deliberately cornball plays-within-the-play turn into delightfully over-the-top pageants. During a gangster-style confrontation, De Shields adopts a hilariously exaggerated pimp stroll and drawl like something out of Jelly’s Last Jam. A would-be Chekhov melancholy death scene features garish costumes worthy of medieval China. In it, De Shields is dressed and performs similarly to Gary Oldman’s Count Dracula, trailing a fabric train the length of the stage. At other moments, O’Hara employs the huge, empty stage to convey the isolation of performers in general, and Robert in particular as his loneliness becomes increasingly apparent.

At times, however, the production’s lavish scale and other creative angles obscure Mamet’s original intent. This version brings out homoerotic tension between the colleagues that doesn’t contradict the text, but has little payoff when John drifts away from Robert. Even such an entertaining performer as De Shields must work overtime to keep the focus on Robert’s recurring speeches about artistic integrity while surrounded by so many gimmicks.

Fortunately, the Broadway veteran can keep up with the technical cues, and young Shafir can keep up with De Shields. A Life in the Theatre’s most affecting moments illustrate the disparities in the two men’s relationship, as John subtly takes everything he can from his mentor, then casts him aside. De Shields brings out his role's tragic and comic dimensions, portraying John as an artist in love with the sound of his own voice who gradually learns that nobody’s listening anymore.

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