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A Life in the Theater at Two River


A Life in the Theater
A 'Life' worth examining in Manasquan
Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/12/04

"A life in the theater goes so fast . . . it goes so quickly," the veteran actor muses to nobody in particular at the end of David Mamet's much-revived paean to the player's calling, not coincidentally titled "A Life in the Theatre."

Presented by the Two River Theatre Co.
Algonquin Arts Theatre
171 Main St., Manasquan

Move it does, in director Robert Walsh's speed-the-plow staging of the Mamet text now on display at the Algonquin Arts Theatre in Manasquan. Presented without intermission by Two River Theatre Company as the fourth and final offering of its 2003-2004 season, "Life" follows a pair of actors. One is an old hambone beholden to the bottle; the other is a young hopeful whose star is on the ascendant. They form a bond over the course of what appears to be several seasons worth of laughably self-important dramas.

Constructed as a series of blackouts, Mamet's 1977 comic duet-and-then-some (filmed for TV in 1993 as a vehicle for Jack Lemmon and Matthew Broderick) is a relatively lighter effort from the Pulitzer-winning purveyor of "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "American Buffalo." The trademark sailor-talk is slightly less salty, nobody gets offed and there's even something of an upbeat note struck by the final curtain. It's a labor of love, from an energetic creator who's never been as cynical as some of his works would have us believe.

Patrick Husted and Erik Singer share the makeup mirror in David Mamet's "A Life in the Theatre," now at the Algonquin Theatre in Manasquan.

The "hard-hitting" dramatic pastiches are easily the funniest element of the playwright's script. Ranging from trenchbound World War I tripe and Shakespearean shtick to soggy seafaring drama and powdered-wig period pap, these shows-within-the-show are earnestly performed by our two protagonists in the midst of chaos: All applicable laws of Murphy and curses of Macbeth are visited upon the set in the form of blown cues, scenery snafus; even halftime-style wardrobe malfunctions.

Walsh's production hits its comic highs with a botched cigar-lighting ritual that stops a turgid tale of boardroom intrigue in its tracks -- as well as with a heavy-handed medical melodrama that flatlines just seconds into the scene.

Often cast in older/wiser roles alongside young John, Patrick Husted's Robert is a competitive, controlling yet fragile and needy eggshell of an ego who's nobody's idea of a mentor. Bursting with dozens of unsolicited opinions and theories; given over to stentorian soapbox filibusters, the aging thespian latches on to the somewhat enigmatic John as a sounding board of sorts -- to the point that much of John's dialogue consists of a monotonous series of "yes" and "mmmm" responses to Robert's ravings.

Carrying physical trace elements of the delightful old character actor Hans Conried, Husted brings a formidable professional resume to his role as Robert -- a man who, in fact, has no life outside the theater. It's no offense to suggest that there must be a lot of Robert in Husted, since the things that make Robert what he is -- his love for the sound of his own voice, his confidence in his ability to work off-script, his belief that he is part of some grandiose tradition that sets him apart from mere mortals -- are present to some degree in every actor. For the sake of strong performances like this one, here's hoping that Husted never loses touch with his inner Robert.

Sporting an equally awesome bio and a lanky look that suggests Young Mr. Lincoln, Erik Singer is slower to connect with the audience in his role as John -- due largely to the lack of memorable words put in his mouth. Both actor and character fare better in the play-within-a-play segments; particularly a Civil War extravaganza wherein the usually reliable John (who performs stretching exercises, does well on TV auditions and actually has friends) panics and completely muffs an entrance cue.

This two-character play isn't really that, as it turns out. Portraying various stagehands, crew and fellow cast members with stoic facility, Lisa Pickell and Bob Senkewicz shared the stage for a good portion of the opening night performance; they'll be platooning in these parts with the tag-team tandem of Matt Ballistreri and Lora Iannarelli for the duration of the show's run.

Scenery is always a tremendous asset of the Two River productions at the mighty Algonquin, and the richly detailed (yet modular and even magically mobile) design by Neil Prince very quickly takes on a "Life" of its own. With walls and backdrops in constant flux and perspectives shifting from scene to scene, the effect is akin to one of those specials that purport to reveal the secrets behind stage illusions -- and with the action even bleeding into the aisles at one point, it's not hyperbole to suggest that Prince (who worked with director Walsh on TRTC's 'Misalliance') is an artist who uses this eccentric old performance space as his canvas.

While not as dynamic or innovative as the previous Two River production "Miss Julie," Mamet's not-entirely-realistic comedy is nevertheless a heartfelt capper to the Two River company's tenth-anniversary slate of shows.

"A Life in the Theatre" continues Wednesdays through Sundays until May 23 with a mix of afternoon and evening performances. Call (732) 345-1400 for show times, ticket prices and reservations.

Bob Senkewicz / Howell, New Jersey /