Working Class Theatre Northwest’s “A Life in the Theatre,” which opens this weekend, is a tale of two actors.
The David Mamet play looks at the backstage workings of a repertory theater, but many of the situations it depicts will be familiar even to those who’ve never trodden the boards.
“What I love about this piece is that it’s not all high drama,” director Luke Amundson of Tacoma said. “It’s Tuesday, and you have to go to work.”
The Tacoma-based theater company is opening the show in Olympia; it then moves to Tacoma for a two-week run. In the long run, the company hopes to take its plays to other Western Washington communities as part of its mission of making theater accessible to a broader audience, artistic director Tim Samland said.
The comedic drama, written in 1977, follows the changing relationship between actors Robert (played by Frank Thompson of Enumclaw), who’s been acting for decades, and much younger John (Mark Peterson of Lakewood), who is beginning to make a name for himself.
“This is predominantly a working relationship,” Amundson said. “Everybody has these weird relationships that you make with people on the job or just because you happen to be in the same place.
“It’s about coping with the day to day: ‘OK, this person is having an off day; how do I respond to that?’ ‘I’m prickly and haven’t had my coffee and somebody is making demands of me as soon as I get to the office; how do I deal with that?’ ”
Among the play’s 26 scenes — which vary widely in length — are some that include snippets of plays on which the men are working. They are vignettes from invented plays that parody various genres, along with those that show ordinary moments in the actors’ lives, as they say hello when they arrive to work or share a meal.
“There are scenes that happen backstage and scenes that happen on stage,” Amundson said.
The play’s dialogue and characters will be familiar to fans of Mamet’s distinctive style — except that there’s quite a bit less profanity than in most of the playwright’s work.
“His word choice is very intentional,” Amundson said. “There’s a rhythm and a cadence. It’s a little stylized, but this piece does a good job of capturing that without it sounding stilted or odd.”
“Life” is lighter than the intense dramas for which Mamet is best known, plays such as the Pulitzer-winning “Glengarry Glen Ross.” “(‘Life’) captures a lot of his best elements without having to be all that dark all of the time,” Amundson said.
“The words ‘delicate’ and ‘David Mamet’ seldom appear in close proximity,” New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote in a 2010 review of a Broadway production. Brantley summed up the play as “a thin, lacy valentine to those who ply their trade on the stage. Treated roughly, it tends to crumble.”
There’s been a lot of time for thought behind this production. Working Class Theatre Northwest’s first production, last May in Tacoma, was a short run of this play with the same actors and director. That production was a graduate school project for Christina Hughes, the company’s co-founder, who was completing a master’s degree in nonprofit management at the University of Washington Tacoma.
“It was a bare-bones production, pretty much just the actors and the text,” Working Class artistic director Amundson said. Having produced two shows since then, the company wanted to bring this one back for a full production, Samland said.
While this production has the benefit of more sophisticated lighting and sound, perhaps the biggest difference is that both the director and cast have had time to get to know the play on a different level during the past year.
“When you produce a show, you usually have four to eight weeks to learn the lines, get the blocking and build sets,” Amundson said. “There isn’t a lot of time to reflect or change course.”
With this show, there was ample time to do just that.
“When we got back together to have the first read-through this time around, both of the actors were making very different choices with some of the scenes and with their characters as a whole,” he said. “We had a show that we were happy with. Now we have a chance to refine it.”