Self-reflecting works of art are always a tricky business, since by nature they appeal mostly to their obvious fan base. However, when it’s done well, theater art especially reflects life in a way that has universal relevance. And in the capable hands of father-and-son team David and Ira Wood, Theatre in the Park’s production of David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre is done very well indeed.
The show opens as young and enthusiastic actor John (Ira David Wood IV) bounds away from a successful performance, brimming with the thrill of opening night. He crosses paths with castmate Robert (Ira David Wood III, who also directs), a dyed-in-the-wool thespian whose lifetime of stage expertise counterbalances John’s exuberance with a more grounded delight.
Robert is full of valuable (and un-asked for) advice to his young cohort; and, too polite and awed to do otherwise, John basks in the glow of such a powerful presence. This dynamic provides the main arc of the show, as John learns from Robert and earns his place on the boards, even as Robert’s illustrious career slowly but surely fades into the background.
All this weaves out through a mosaic of moments — sometimes backstage vignettes, sometimes snippets of productions in which John and Robert share the stage. It is in those “play-within-a-play” scenes that the mutual acting chops of these consummate performers really gets to shine. Watching the Woods act like actors acting is a downright hoot. Hilarity and heartbreak, friendship and rivalry intertwine through various on- and off-stage interactions and foibles to which actors of any degree of experience can relate.
The only fly in this otherwise fine ointment are the scene changes; there are a lot of them. Even though they are executed smoothly by a tireless stage crew (Brennan Reilly, prop master Abigail Kuchar, and Lucas Barrick assist Conti, under the competent stage direction of Christine Rapp), after a while, they took something of a toll on the pacing. (David Mamet may be a legendary playwright, and this is one of his finer and more underrated works, in my opinion; but this particular script would translate better on film … of course, that would rather undermine the entire theme. Well, even Shakespeare had his problem plays.)
David Wood carries the bulk of the lines; but as the play unfolds, he deftly attenuates Robert’s endless rhetoric about the art of theater to ring more and more hollow. Though Robert has the lion’s share of words, it’s really John who has the most to say; but he can rarely get a word in edgewise. Indeed, Robert so enjoys hearing himself talk that he forgets to listen.
It is in this dynamic that the real impact of the play starts to emerge. The raw vulnerability in Ira Wood’s portrayal of John may as well be a study in the Millennial dilemma; there’s no shortage of enthusiasm, of hope, of yearning for greatness. Nor is John unwilling to learn from those who’ve gone before him. Indeed, he’s almost painfully eager to bask in the glow of someone who seems to have all the answers.
In fact, Robert doesn’t have life figured out much at all, which is perhaps why he tries so hard to fill the silences. Watching John’s idol slowly but surely fade before his eyes is unbearably relatable. John’s might be the silent battle cry of the generation that is tasked with saving the world from the very people determined to tell them exactly how to do so, perhaps as a way to avoid facing the fact that they couldn’t manage to do it themselves.
Deeply moving and subtly inspiring, A Life in the Theater is like a fine wine, with layers of depth and complexity emerging as it unfolds. Nathaniel Conti’s set design gives the audience a very literal backstage viewpoint, with upstage down and downstage up. It’s as if the audience gets to be part of the theater building itself, perhaps watching this same story play out in endless iterations over countless years.
The lighting design by Alicia Varcoe graced the simple stage with strategic precision, effecting dynamic mood shifts that ebbed and flowed along with the internal journeys of the characters. If there was an award for the number of costume changes in a single show, this one might win it; everything from subtle accessories to suggest passages of time, to full period pieces for the different shows in which the characters star (props to costume designer Christine McInnis, and dressers Sage Amthor Twiss and Laura Stover). The sound design helped hold the various moods during so many blackouts, and set a lovely tone of nostalgia at the top and bottom of the show with a house music playlist of Broadway classics.
The show comes in at a tidy 90 minutes, which is a relief in a season where intermission-free shows seem to be all the rage. David and Ira Wood are absolutely riveting on stage; staying engaged while acting with their backs turned to the “real” audience for significant stretches of time is simply exceptional. And while the larger themes are deeply resonant and worthy of reflection, this is not a heavy play.
There are plenty of comedic moments between the John and Robert — both backstage as the generations clash, and on stage through various foibles such as wardrobe malfunctions and missed cues — that keep a vital levity running throughout. TIP’s A Life in the Theater is a full-bodied treat and a love song to the craft that theater patrons and newcomers alike can savor.
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 10th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=9276; Feb. 10th Cary, NC RDU on Stage review by Kim Jackson: https://rduonstage.com/2019/02/10/review-theatre-in-the-parks-a-life-in-the-theatre-is-bittersweet-humorous-and-mesmerizing/ and Feb. 3rd podcast interview with Ira David Wood III and Ira David Wood IV, conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://rduonstage.com/podcast/podcast-ep-4-a-life-in-the-theater-with-theater-in-the-parks-ira-david-wood-iii-and-ira-david-wood-iv/; and Feb. 9th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2019/02/theatre-in-the-parks-a-life-in-the-theatre-is-thoughtful-and-well-acted/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Feb. 9th Triangle Review review by Dawn Reno Langley, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2019/02/david-and-ira-wood-do-david-mamet-proud-in-a-life-in-the-theatre-at-tip/.)
Theatre in the Park presents A LIFE IN THE THEATRE, starring Ira David Wood III and Ira David Wood IV, at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14-16, 3 p.m. Feb. 17, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22 and 23, and 3 p.m. Feb. 24 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $27 ($22 students, seniors 60+, and active-duty military personnel), except $19 per ticket for groups of 10 or more.
BOX OFFICE: 919-831-6058 or https://theatreinthepark.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0S1K00000GVBUJUA5.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-831-6058 or http://theatreinthepark.com/whatson/group-sales.
SHOW: https://www.theatreinthepark.com/whats-on/a-life-in-the-theatre.html and https://www.facebook.com/events/996864013840605/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.facebook.com/theatreintheparkraleigh/videos/605727143195690/.
PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/, https://www.facebook.com/theatreintheparkraleigh, https://twitter.com/TheatreInPark, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatre_in_the_Park.
NOTE: All shows are wheelchair/walker accessible, and large-print playbills are usually available.
A Life in the Theatre (1977 Chicago and Off-Broadway, 2005 West End, 2008 Edinburgh Fringe and 2010 Broadway comedy): https://www.samuelfrench.com/p/2817/a-life-in-the-theatre/ (Samuel French, Inc.), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/572 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/a-life-in-the-theatre-488278 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Life_in_the_Theatre (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: https://www.goodmantheatre.org/Documents/Study%20Guides/0506%20Season/A%20LIFE%20IN%20THE%20THEATRE%20Student%20Guide.pdf (Goodman Theatre in Chicago).
David Mamet (Chicago playwright and screenwriter): http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/1855 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/david-mamet-5000 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000519/ (Internet Movie Database), https://twitter.com/davidmamet (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Mamet (Wikipedia).
Ira David Wood III (Raleigh, NC director/performer/playwright and TIP’s founder and artistic and executive director): http://theatreinthepark.com/about/whos-who (TIP bio), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0202796/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/iradavidwood; (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/idwiii; (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ira_David_Wood_III (Wikipedia)
Ira David Wood IV (Raleigh, NC director/performer/playwright and TIP’s assistant artistic director): http://theatreinthepark.com/about/whos-who (TIP bio), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0939505/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/ira.d.wood (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/iradavidwoodiv (Twitter page).
Melanie Simmons of Cary, NC is a film and stage actress with a BA degree in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA. She has studied acting with Sande Shurin Acting Studios in New York City and The Actor’s Workshop in Los Angeles, CA; and she now trains locally with Lynda Clark (stage), Daryl Ray Carlisle (film/commercial), and Rebekah Holland (voice). Simmons has performed at Raleigh Little Theatre in Raleigh, Forest Moon Theater in Wake Forest, Stageworks Theatre in Holly Springs, and many others. She is represented by Talent One Agency in Raleigh. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.