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A Life in the Theatre
by David Mamet
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 8, 2019

William Roth, Ryan Lawson-Maeske
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

If you’ve ever been involved in theatre at any level, St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s latest production will have something to which you can relate. A Life in the Theatre is David Mamet’s two-hander focusing on two actors at different stages in their careers, continuing STLAS’s season of two person plays. Here, with two excellent performers in the leading roles, this is a show that serves as an insightful glimpse at the theatrical life, for actors and for anyone who loves this art form.

This isn’t a long play, running at roughly 85 minutes and with no intermission, but makes its point well in that short running time. Its a series of vignettes, essentially, following the interactions of two actors who frequently work together. Robert (William Roth) is the older, more seasoned performer and John (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) is the younger actor whose career is on the way up. Through the course of the evening, we get to see their backstage interactions as well as portions of some of their plays, including a World War I drama, an office drama, and others. As the show goes on, there are successes and mishaps, including several that many who have worked on a play will recognize. There are missed technical cues, forgotten lines, mistimed entrances, and more. Also, we see the changing dynamics of the relationship between the two characters, as John experiences new successes and Robert is reminded of the swift passage of time and deals with jealousy as well as mortality. Mamet’s script is insightful and frequently humorous in a knowing sort of way, demonstrating the timelessness of theatre and the acting profession, and how the art goes on even as the performers age and change. It’s a witty show with moments of cynicism and poignancy, but ultimately it reinforces the old adage that “the show must go on”.

It’s an intriguing character study in which the characters are “types” as much as they are individuals. The two are played with flair by STLAS veterans Roth and Lawson-Maeske. Roth gets to make the most of his range as Robert starts out with a sense of projected overconfidence and then gradually loses that and grows more and more unsure and unstable. Lawson-Maeske is also winning as the young performer gaining experience and learning to deal with success as well as managing his relationship with his colleague. The two share a strong on-stage rapport as well, that turns into something of a “frenemies” situation, occasionally crossing the line into combative, and both performers excel in these moments, and in the more comic moments as well.

The staging by director John Contini is well paced, and Patrick Huber’s set is versatile and well-realized, allowing for various easy scene changes that change the perspective from backstage to on stage. There’s also a range of appropriately suited costumes by Andrea Robb, and excellent sound design by Contini and lighting by Huber. Even in its staging, this is an excellent glimpse of the life of a performer in its various aspects.

This is a show for theatre lovers, and especially for anyone who has worked on a production. If you know theatre, you should know a lot of what’s portrayed here. A Life in the Theatre is an apt title, since even though it depicts particular characters, there is something universal about this art, and the life of a performer. It’s well worth seeing, and remembering.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske, William Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting A Life in the Theatre at the Gaslight Theater until December 22, 2019

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American Buffalo
by David Mamet
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 3, 2016

William Roth, Leo Ramsey, Peter Mayer Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

William Roth, Leo Ramsey, Peter Mayer
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Desperation is on display in David Mamet’s modern classic play American Buffalo, and it’s not Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” either. In fact, the characters in this highly charged three-person play can get rather loud. With a powerful script and equally powerful acting, this production is a highlight of the year in St. Louis theatre.

The setting is a resale shop in Chicago in the 1970’s. Donny Dubrow (Peter Mayer), the owner of the shop, talks with his young protege, Bobby (Leo Ramsey) about an initially unnamed project they’re working on. Soon after the arrival of their friend, Walter “Teach” Cole (William Roth) we find out exactly what’s being planned. Donny had apparently sold a valuable “Buffalo” nickel to a customer for much less than it was worth, and he wants to get the nickel back by any means necessary, or more specifically, to steal it back. Teach, however, has strong opinions about Bobby’s being involved in this job, and is determined to take Bobby’s place. That’s really the basic plot. Of course more happens and there are some rather devastating developments, but what is front and center here is the world Mamet has created, and these intricately flawed characters and their complicated relationships, with each other and with a few associates they constantly talk about but are never shown, as well as with the world around them.  The language is thoroughly believable and effective. Each character has distinct rhythms of speech. The strong language for which Mamet is known is not as shocking today as it may have been when the play was written, but it’s still effective and perfectly suited to the characters who inhabit this story.

The real “show” here isn’t the plot, really. It’s the characters, and they are exquisitely well-drawn and, in this production, just as exquisitely portrayed. The relationships are also clearly defined. The wary friendship between Donny and Teach, the father/son-like dynamic between Donny and Bobby, and the not-so-thinly veiled suspicion between Bobby and Teach, are all clearly on display here in this lucidly directed production. Mayer is able to find a glimmer of desperate hope behind the defeated world-weariness of Donny, and his protectiveness of Bobby is readily apparent.  Ramsey portrays a real sense of determination and affection for Donny in his portrayal of the somewhat naive but determined Bobby. Roth, for his part, emphasizes the underlying rage in the part of the swaggering, confrontational Teach. All three actors interact with a believable sense of relationship and personal history, and the energy in their confrontations is palpable.  It’s a remarkable feat of acting from all three.

Another intensely impressive aspect of this production is the creation of the characters’ physical world. Set designer Cristie Johnson and props designer Carla Landis Evans have brought Donny’s junk shop to such vivid life that every time I walked past it on the way in and out of the theatre, I just wanted to stop and stare at the sheer level of detail, as every item in the well-stocked shop seemed to have a story of its own. The authenticity is complete down the the display cases, the realistic shop windows, and the well-worn linoleum on the floor. Evans’ costumes also perfectly outfit the characters and anchoring them into the play’s established time and place.  There’s also stellar lighting work from Dalton Robinson and excellent sound design from director John Contini.  The Gaslight Theatre is small, but STLAS continues to impress me with how much they can do with the stage area, creating a space that’s so meticulously detailed and entirely believable as the setting for such a fully realized production.

American Buffalo is a well-crafted work from one of America’s most celebrated modern playwrights. It’s volatile, raw, revealing, and not particularly hopeful, but it gives us a world and characters that are achingly authentic. At St. Louis Actors’ studio, such a work has become something of a master class for top-notch acting directing, and design. That description might make this sound clinical, but it’s not. This play is real, and on clear, emotional display. It’s intense, it’s devastating, and it’s not to be missed.

William Roth, Peter Mayer Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

William Roth, Peter Mayer
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting American Buffalo at the Gaslight Theatre until December 18, 2016.

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