The crew outnumbers the cast a good fourfold in A Life in the Theatre, which opened Oct. 12 at the Gerald Schoenfeld, but they never emerge from the shadows — dark, anonymous silhouettes darting purposefully about the stage, shoving scenery, replacing props, doing everything that's required to make sure the show goes on.
It's a world unto itself, and David Mamet entered it first as an actor. It shows, with some brilliance, in the fun and affection he has lavished on this play, still the closest he has ever — and probably will ever — come to a valentine.
Center-stage are a pair of opposites — Robert and John — actors toiling and fretting and strutting their hour and a half on stage, backstage, beside the stage, in every configuration imaginable. Robert the elder (Patrick Stewart) is grandly mannered from years of trodding the boards and given to a mentoring pose (one of many) — particularly toward John the younger (T.R. Knight), whether the latter likes it or not. Mostly, it's "not," but he lets the old boy prattle on, picking the tips he wants.
Their interplay is like a tense game of tennis, slammed out in the sort of staccato shorthand for which Mamet is famous. The self-absorption of each is visible as they carry on the conventions of conversation in their dressing room or doing every-actor-for-himself on stage. They are seen, by quick turns, rocking choppily at sea in a lifeboat, or waving a tentatively attached flag at the barricades, or grappling desperately and hilariously for the proper medical nomenclature in a surgery scene. Sir Patrick, who rarely gets a clear shot at comedy, employs his 'r'-rolling, sonorous voice to frequently riotous effect here, and Knight, working on his own wave-length, returns the serve, full of pep and puppy-like energy — a novice with a lot to learn.
Their much-taxed voices became A Major Issue at the after-party which was held at the elegant and expansive Brasserie 8½ on West 57th. The boom-box voice of Sir Patrick was short-circuiting a bit, and word went out to the press that one question per outlet would be permitted at the press conference. As this played out, only the three TV interviewers got to speak. Everyone else had to fend for themselves.
Sir Patrick's "grilling" lasted a total of two minutes and 12 seconds — easily an opening-night record — plus four little words that the completely ignored print medium was able to extract amid the confusion as he exited the room: How many costume changes do you have? "I think, 22." [The most quoted number was 26.] And what was that like backstage. "Intense," Sir Patrick said succinctly with a smile.
He spoke in a slower, softer, much-less charged voice than he used on stage, as if he was conserving strength for when he needed it. The tale of the real-life allergist from The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Barry Kohn, was that he had "a slight infection on his vocal cords" and Knight was on the mend from a sore throat.
When Sir Patrick was asked what it was he liked about the play, he advanced two answers: "That I am getting to do a David Mamet play on Broadway, Number One, and that the play seems to be a pictograph of my last 52 years in the theatre."
This was not his first Life in the Theatre. He had premiered the play in London at the West End's Apollo five years ago, opposite Joshua Jackson, so one reporter asked what it was like to revisit the play now with T. R. Knight.
That produced: "It has been marvelous because this is not a case of repeating something that has happened before but a completely new beginning, a reexamination of the script, and that's largely due to Neil Pepe, who led us in that direction, and we had the author with us for a few days, too. Almost everything is changed from what I remember. In fact, I hardly remember anything from before."
Of director Pepe, Sir Patrick said, "The first and most important thing is that this is a man who knows David Mamet and knows his work — in fact, if I may say it? — was a student of David's, which I thought was fantastic. So when David was with us for three days, it was thrilling — and then David went, but we sorta continued to have David in the room, and that was a great bonus to me and to T.R. Knight. We told too many anecdotes."
Pepe picked up the ball: "The play is so much about rehearsing the play so you would stop the scene and then talk about the scene, and it was exactly like the scene you'd just done so it was like having a mirror. But it was an amazing process for me because, between Patrick and David, there were so many incredible stories. Patrick was telling us about his 16 years at RSC and all of the various great actors that he has worked with in plays and all the Shakespeares. It was really an unbelievable process that I thought was directly related to the play we were working on."
Knight, likewise, praised Pepe but couldn't help admitting, "It's awkward because he's standing right here, but . . . it's just great when you've got a good director and kind of a gentle guy. He creates a safe work environment, which is really important, so you can try many things. You can make a fool out of yourself, and you can figure out what works and what doesn't work, and so it's great to have that experience."
T.R. Knight discusses the rehearsal process:
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The love-in went another lap, with Pepe adding, "And the feeling is mutual. You and Patrick are such incredible actors, so detail-oriented, so passionate. Mamet's language is so amazing, so specific, so when you bring great actors together at the same time, it's really exciting. I just sorta frame it up and get out of the way."
Knight has been on the West Coast making a name for himself on "Grey's Anatomy," but he has returned to the town where he started acting. "I was just going to come to do this, but then I decided I couldn't stand being away anymore so I've moved back."
Knight said A Life in the Theatre had been substantially revised from what Ellis Rabb and Peter Evans so memorably premiered at the Theatre de Lys in the original 1977 production, which happily has been preserved via PBS's "Great Performances."
He's hot on the trail of that tape, too. Recently when Sir Patrick taped his Tony-nominated Macbeth for PBS, Knight button-holed the network president and requested a copy of the Rabb-Evans version. One is now on the way, but "I won't be able to watch it until we close because I don't want to mess up my head."
The play, by design, is a kind of kaleidoscope of theatre life, and Pepe admitted he had his hands full keeping all the fragments together and moving in a forward direction. "It's an hour and a half show, but it's 26 scenes and a costume change after every scene so it's a mammoth undertaking," he pointed out. "I always wanted to make sure there was fluidity to it so there's not too much stop-and-starting. You have to make sure the costumes are rigged so they can fly off the actors. And then you want to have enough movement in the scenes to get a little bit of a swelling. That has been challenging, certainly during tech and seeing it in front of audiences." He had no hesitation naming his accomplices: "I'm working with an amazing set designer, Santo Loquasto, and Kenneth Posner's doing the lighting and Laura Bauer's doing the costumes — so it has been an exciting time."
There have been, he conceded, some pricelessly amusing moments when life imitates art — "times when the actors have gone up on their lines in a scene where they are supposed to be going up on their lines. You're thinking, 'What is going on here?' There were even misses tonight that were hilarious. It was a lot of fun for me to watch that. That's what live theatre's about, and that's what the play celebrates."
The director considered that this was the fullest Life in the Theatre extant. "They had a done an HBO movie of it in the early '90s, and Mamet had written some new stuff for Jack Lemmon and Matthew Broderick so we added some of that into this, and then Mamet wrote quite a bit of new stuff for Sir Patrick and T.R. during the rehearsal process. There's a monologue at the end of the show where Sir Patrick says, 'My father was an actor,' and he describes himself as a small boy performing in front of people — that's completely new. There are a bunch of other little things where he's doing vocal warm-ups that are new."
Mamet, who not only attended the party with wife Rebecca Pidgeon but made himself visible to the press (if not very vocal), parsimoniously conceded that he had recrafted the piece. "I did a bit," he said hesitantly. "I did a bit of rewriting."
Tony winners Angela Lansbury and Alan Cumming led the celeb parade, which included Uma Thurman, Kate Walsh with Gatz actor Gary Wilmes, Jonathan Cake, Clark Gregg and his father-in-law, Joel Grey (both missing their Jennifer Grey on "Dancing With the Stars"), Sutton Foster (who lent her dresser, Julian, to Knight for the run), Penny Fuller, Broadway-bound Colin Quinn, Pearl Theatre-bound Austin Pendleton, Melissa George, Jim Dale and wife Julie Schafler, Taye Diggs, Andrea Martin, Countess LuAnn de Lesseps, CNN's Thomas Roberts with Mom in tow, Matt McGrath, Mike Doyle, Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham with Gina Rogers (his original 1976 co-star in Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago), Laila Robins with fresh-from-his-Feinstein's-debut Robert Cuccioli, director David Cromer, Becky Ann Baker (set for The New Group's Blood from a Stone) with hubby Dylan (he's playing a non-singing detective in the upcoming Encores! concert of Bells Are Ringing), Kimberly Hope and Thomas Sadoski, Mary McCann and daughter Lena, Pia Lindstrom, comedienne Judy Gold (pondering a spring spot Off-Broadway for "The Judy Show"), and, paying a neighborly visit from the Jacobs next door to the Schoenfeld, Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, the director/book writer and the songwriter of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which follows A Life in the Theatre onto The Great White Way Oct. 13.