All Things Entertaining and Cultural

A Life in the Theatre — Walnut Independence on 3

life10One thing you learn, with some fascination, as you watch the Walnut Street Theatre’s production of David Mamet’s “A Life in the Theatre” is how incredibly agile actor Davy Raphaely is.

Mamet’s play is an affectionate spoof of actors’ attitudes, Murphy’s Law moments on stage, and theater traditions. In a scene in which Raphaely is doing a funny send-up of actors’ warm-ups, he follows a vibration of lips, during which he brings his voice from falsetto to bass, with a series of gyrations and muscle thrusts that show Raphaely has a dancer’s control of every joint, muscle, tendon, and corpuscle in his body.

Raphaely’s movements continue to be humorous even as they make you wonder how he became such a master of his torso. Neither yoga nor Alexander’s Technique explain the double jointed prowess. This kid has a career in the circus if his acting gigs ever fizzle.

Mamet’s script, always taut and generally amusing, includes scenes the purpose of which you question. They don’t seem to comment as broadly or as accurately as others.

No matter. The director and co-star of Mamet’s two-hander, Bill Van Horn, works with Raphaely to make sure each sequence, no matter how extended or short, is entertaining and has a basic human element to it that shows two actors communing, for better or worse, as colleagues and an older man being a mentor to a younger performer.

All kinds of subjects are covered from vanity and one actor trying to suppress another’s intensity to gain more attention for himself to flubbed or forgotten lines and scenes that go awry.

Van Horn’s production gives insight on how theater is made and that it is much more than two people showing up to exchange some dialogue.

Some of the most amusing sequences at the Walnut reveal rehearsal process and glitches amid performances. In one scene, you hear Van Horn and Raphaely, whose respective character names are Robert and John, running lines that sound as if they come from a clichéd saga of the sea. Van Horn is especially funny as he tests several ways of expressing a particular phrase, each time getting hammier and more mired in a mock-Scottish accent.

Later in “A Life in the Theatre,” you see the scene, enacted as if in front of an audience, the Walnut punters’ point of view being behind the action taking place on stage. You hear how the scene comes to life and how involving it is, clichéd dialogue or not. With enough exaggeration to be funny, but enough seriousness to keep it plausible a paying audience is being moved by this scene from the other side of the curtain, Van Horn and Raphaely show how actors can take even the tritest material and make something potent and powerful from it.

First of all, we see the simple wooden dye-cut of a rowboat that Robert and John pretend to be in as they battle a storm. Their vessel, in reality, is nothing more than a 10-pound prop pressed from a piece of lumber and painted to be a boat. It’s held up by two hinged legs that emerge from the back of the point the way felt-covered standards fold out from the backs of picture frames. Through its construction and use, set designer Glen Sears, and his prop person, help us see the illusion that goes into theater.

Then Van Horn and Raphaely, sitting on stools behind the cut-out, rock back and forth as though a storm is threatening their lives, and a capsize is due any second. The lines that sounded so hackneyed in rehearsal are delivered with immediacy and intensity. You become involved with what might happen to the characters Robert and John are playing, even as Van Horn and Raphaely are overdoing their parts to entertain the Walnut crowd.

Again, you see how theater and acting talent transform something that reads as commonplace to something suspenseful and exciting. Mamet’s spoof is also an homage, the seafaring scene being  among the more affectionate of the tributes to the magic theater can foment at the same time it points out how artificial and pliable theater is.

The sea sequence is tempered and offset by another scene in which nothing goes right for Van Horn’s Robert. He ends up dislodging his wig and making a mockery of any lines or business he has, so much so, he just waves off the scene and walks off-stage. There are also good moments in which John is trying his darndest to lead Robert into a forgotten line and when John is attempting to steer dialogue back to the right part of a scene after Robert has jumped about two pages and is already in another sequence of the play.

The actor’s second most daunting nightmare, missing a cue, is also covered, as is just being able to wrap your tongue around something in the dialogue. (I remember a tussle I had with an exclamation of “Riggadiggadoo,” simple enough once you get it, from “The Subject Was Roses,” circa 1975.)

Mamet tackles vanity by having John say something in passing that Robert seizes on, in one sequence positively, in another negatively. Van Horn adds some nice touches, such as Robert returning a comb he borrowed from John with his hair still lodged in the teeth. Age tutoring youth is illustrated by a scene in which a sword fight is reviewed, Robert being nervous about how close John is bringing the sword to his face. (In most cases, all fight scenes, swords or not, are practiced before each performance to insure memory and safety.) Ambition is covered by John reading a paperback copy of and, later, pretending to enact Shakespeare’s “Henry V” to an empty house.

Van Horn and Raphaely are gamely up to any challenge Mamet gives them. In the long run, they save the playwright because as sharp as “A Life in the Theatre” can be in some passages is how inert and inconsequential it can seem in others. Van Horn and Raphaely, by playing Robert and John as distinct characters (as opposed to Everyman actors who plug themselves differently into every scene), keep the human relationships in “A Life in the Theatre” intact and make some of the duller moments more tolerable, and even palatable.

“A Life in the Theatre” debuted at a time when Mamet was writing short takes and one acts. The play was always more accessible and pointed than “Duck Variations,” “The Water Engine” or “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” while maintaining Mamet’s role as an examiner of life in small doses and as a social commentator. He found what was loveable and ludicrous about the theater and put in on stage, for the most part with skill. The author is lucky that at the Walnut, when his gifts failed him,” Bill Van Horn’s and Davy Raphaely’s took over.

“A Life in the Theatre” runs through Sunday, February 1, at the Independence Theare on 3 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $45 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or by visiting “A Life in the Theatre” embarks on a national tour following its Walnut run.




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