BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
Between new works and revivals, Broadway has hosted six plays by David Mamet over the last five years, including "Race" and "November." Mamet's terse, caustic comedies regarding the American social scene are punchy, often bitterly funny works. I have enjoyed seeing most of them. How about you?
Show number seven is a new production of Mamet's "A Life in the Theatre," which originally ran off-Broadway during the 1977-78 season with Ellis Rabb and Peter Evans.
Arriving on Tuesday at the Schoenfeld Theatre, the two-character play now co-stars Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight as actors pursuing their profession over the course of several months.
Compared to the majority of Mamet's darker-shaded works, "A Life in the Theatre" is a relatively gentle and genial piece as Robert (Stewart) and John (Knight) go about their nightly business. The 90-minute play's series of short scenes variously observes these thespians in their dressing room, elsewhere backstage or out there performing some show.
Sometimes the results are comical, as when a piece of scenery falls apart during a poignant Russian drama or somebody loses a wig in the middle of declaiming an impassioned French Revolution-type speech. During the course of the piece, which suggests the actors are in a repertory company doing numerous productions, Mamet provides sly parodies of O'Neill and Chekhov, among other masters.
Backstage, the veteran Robert gives professional advice to the newcomer John, who is receptive, irked or tolerant depending on the moment. As the months fly by, Robert regards John's ascending career with a touch of envy and a wistful awareness of his own increasingly limited life in the theater.
Wonderfully assured in manner — until later in the story when Robert begins to falter — the craggy-faced Stewart suggests a rather florid artiste of the old school, complete with rich, plummy, vocal accents. Bouncing with youthful energy as John, Knight displays a puppy-dog eagerness that turns more reserved as he matures. The actors' personal interplay backstage might be expressed more intimately than it is here, but apparently director Neil Pepe intends to keep this production on the lighter, brighter side.
Designer Santo Loquasto neatly provides many changes in scenery — shifted by the stagehands in view of the audience — while Laura Bauer's motley wardrobe of costumes possesses amusing touches. If this ably staged, performed and designed production is not the most memorable show you will ever see, it certainly represents an agreeable time with a couple of excellent players exercising their craft.
"A Life in the Theatre" continues at the Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.broadwaysbestshows.com.