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Source Theatre artistic director Joe Banno has chosen to inaugurate the company’s 25th season with a basic play, David Mamet’s 1977 A Life in the Theatre, about an older actor and a younger one navigating various scenes as well as their own relationship. It’s a nice idea, celebrating the silver anniversary of a no-frills theater with a no-frills play that both emulates and requires naked, fundamental acting skills.

There’s just one hitch: The play’s not very good.

Banno calls A Life, in Source press material, Mamet’s “love letter to his profession” exploring the relationship between the two characters “on and off stage in a series of warm and witty scenes.” But if this is a valentine, it’s a tattered and slightly twisted one, and to the limited degree that the story moves us, it’s because a warmth the older character, Robert (Michael Tolaydo), badly needs from the younger, John (Jon Cohn), is absent. In a few spots, Mamet squeezes some between-the-lines tension as Robert and John tiptoe around each other’s brittle egos. But where you’d expect the sharpest Mamet satire, in the parody excerpts of the “plays” Robert and John are in, you find only pale, giggly reflections of a World War I saga, a hip, contemporary, cigar-sniffingly Freudian British office melodrama, a botched operating-room scene, and so on.

That’s not to say that A Life is without interest, but it’s intriguing mostly from a career-historical standpoint. You can see the Mamet of Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo trying to escape what could have been the rut of pure, staccato, foul-mouthed mano a mano pissing contests and misogyny. You can see him scratching away, trying to get at the psychological chess of House of Games or The Spanish Prisoner, at the shop-talk authenticity of Glengarry Glen Ross, at the civil cadences of The Winslow Boy or Boston Marriage. But most of all, you can see him feeding and tending to the leitmotif of tainted mentorship that marks so many of his plays and screenplays, whether that mentor be an actor, a salesman, a con man, a tough Irish cop, a professor, a multimillionaire survivalist, or a sweet, old-fashioned small-town theater director, such as Rebecca Pidgeon’s character in State and Main.

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When he wrote A Life, Mamet was pulling these strands together, but he hadn’t figured out how to knit them. To argue that the play lacks substance is to fall into a bit of a trap, for Robert the mentor is a trickster, and his trick is that there’s nothing to him—he’s a shell, a blowhard, whose gusts of mannerisms enable him to muddle through his trade, but not quite through the rest of his life. For a little while, it seems, Robert has his protégé’s polite, if not rapt, attention, as he blathers on about how actors are a community that must follow a tradition-bound etiquette, about how they “must not lie about [their] antecedents” and “are explorers of the soul.” He actually says, “The young in the theater are tomorrow’s leaders.” There’s a narrow comedic vein in Robert’s bloviations, too, for instance as he plays the literary critic while running lines with John for the lifeboat drama, parsing a grim, spare, straightforward dialogue about salt water and rain, much to John’s irritation.

Very soon, though, John learns, as do we, that what little there is to Robert, beyond the precious enunciations and highfalutin thespian mysticism, is not pretty. Robert is basically a bully, if a pathetic one. “You can learn a lot by keeping your mouth shut,” he tells his younger colleague during a backstage snit, the hammered irony being that Robert would be the last person on earth to know what a shut mouth felt like. There’s also the hint of the sexual predator in him, though this aspect isn’t really developed much. Never mind prying into John’s personal life and wheedling from him a reluctant invitation to a late-night bite to eat. Robert’s all over the young man, critiquing such trivialities as John’s eighth-of-an-inch makeup brush and offering, ostensibly in regard to John’s voice, “You take excellent care of your tool.” As a few phone conversations and an audition suggest, John’s going places—maybe even a film role. Robert, of course, is going nowhere—in one scene, literally, as he is unable to extract himself from an empty hall where John’s trying to practice a monologue. Robert is just barely keeping himself together. “You learn control,” he opines, just as he’s on the brink of losing it.

There’s a good midcourse draft of an intriguing play in all this, but not enough meat on the bones—that came later, and in other works. That’s too bad, because Tolaydo’s Robert really is a character in search of a better author. When, at a crisis point, he cries, “Does anyone have a script?” a viewer can’t help but consider the line in the broader context. Yes, the fact that Robert is nothing without words put in his mouth is key. Even so, though, it would help to know what he dreamed of when he started in the theater, if he ever loved, ever hated (aside from critics and experimental drama). Tolaydo gives the part what suppressed, angry robustness he can, but portraying the shell of a man is hard enough without trying to color in the shell of a script.

Cohn, too, is conscientious in his primarily reactive role, and endearing, giving it a gung-ho, vibrant sunniness that, while John remains civil, turns to something darker and mistrustful. But does Robert just get on his nerves, or does he also frighten John as the ghost of actor future? And if John, unlike his older changing-room mate, has a life beyond work, what importance does work have for him? Mamet leaves us wondering. Nonetheless, John’s resigned, sad look when Robert finally drops the veil of his pretensions—when John sees a man who always pretends to bare his soul finally, and against his will, revealing it—says more than any words could.

Banno (the Washington City Paper’s opera critic), set designer Greg Mitchell, and lighting designer Marianne Mitchell use Source’s perennial ragtag qualities nicely in creating a ragtag backstage world. Amid the makeup tables and bare light bulbs, you can’t actually see the dust, but you think you can. Cool jazz interludes, akin to music used in Mamet plays and movies you’ve seen before, resonate nicely with the portrayed theater life’s odd combination of dingy routine and occupational hyperawareness. It also buys the poor actors some time to take care of some two dozen costume changes. (Problems with costume zippers provide some of the show’s most reliable laughs.)

Ultimately, however, you leave the theater wanting something more. Mamet told Time’s Richard Corliss in 1998, “I’m always trying to keep it spare. For me the real division between a serious writer and an unserious one is whether they’re willing to cut.” But in this instance from some 20 years before, he’d done too much subtracting before he’d done enough adding.

And the result is a drama that’s, well, a little too basic. CP