Slipping in and out of a character’s skin is the actor’s stock in trade. Some are gifted with a chameleonic range; others are most persuasive in a certain type of role. But in either case, creating the illusion of being someone else is a formidable challenge.
“A Life in the Theater,” running through Dec. 22 in a spellbinding and frequently hilarious St. Louis Actors’ Studio production, is a celebration of the actor’s art. An early two-character play by David Mamet, it’s a series of vignettes involving Robert (William Roth, the troupe’s founder and artistic director), a veteran thespian with a penchant for pontificating, and John (Ryan Lawson-Maeske), a talented newcomer to the profession.
Directed by John Contini, who also designed the sound, the play takes place mostly in a backstage dressing room during a season in which Robert and John portray a variety of characters — from soldiers on a battlefield to scraggly companions stranded in a lifeboat.
Mamet conveys a sense of how it must feel to be a performer, for whom living in the moment onstage is just about as important as, or perhaps virtually indistinguishable from, negotiating the ups and downs of real life. Although Robert starts out as something of a mentor, it’s implied that by the end of the play John has equaled or surpassed him as an artist.
Contini makes inspired use of the Gaslight Theater, taking advantage of its cozy space to conjure an aura of intimacy. And his actors give wonderfully nuanced performances. Roth brings to Robert a mercurial combination of bluster and insecurity, and Lawson-Maeske subtly traces John’s journey to self-confidence. Their chemistry goes a long way toward involving the audience in their characters’ roller coaster relationship.
The production also benefits mightily from Patrick Huber’s meticulous set and lighting and Andrea Robb’s evocative costumes.
“A Life in the Theater” offers a rare and illuminating glimpse into what goes on in the mind and heart of an actor.