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Jewish Repertory actors are in great form, but need more from Mamet in ‘A Life in Theatre’

What we see on stage is only half the drama.

David Mamet’s two-person play, “A Life in the Theatre,” now at Jewish Repertory Theatre, is a parenthetical nod to the actors behind the characters. It considers the weight of honing a craft, managing your talent and assuming the responsibility of your fellow artists. And all the while, accepting the limits one must have when taking on other personas for a living.

Saul Elkin is Robert, an elder in a repertory theater company. Robert is refined, kind and resolute in his craft. A lifelong student of the theater, he knows and reveres it like the back of his hand. Adam Rath is John, a young actor new to the company. Doe-eyed and eager, he jumps in to savor Robert’s sage advice. Teacher and apprentice, these two are a match made in stagecraft heaven.

This dynamic is the sole goal of Mamet’s play, it would seem. There’s richness in this promise of this relationship, and in a theatrical context, there’s a lot to say about the roles we play on and off stage, the commitment to tradition, our hope for one’s legacy. There are plenty of Jewish tropes to echo for hours. But there’s just too much missing from Mamet’s story, such as an arc. Two short acts stretch a story that barely has enough line-by-line material for a scene study. It could easily have been one act, even with more material, which it needs.

We encounter Robert and John in a variety of short scenes, in vignettes sometimes as short as a New Yorker cartoon. Longer scenes feel like they’re going to give us something poignant and advancing. There’s one scene in the second act that suggests a moment of discovery and understanding between the two actors, who at this point have gotten on each other’s nerves; generational differences are driving wedges.

But Mamet, who is known for his rapid-fire verbal volleys, gives these two hopeful character types barely enough material to read the weather report. Act One ends abruptly, confusingly. Where’s the dramatic hook? What are we to wonder or care about them? What are they looking for in the first place?

Answers do not seem possible, a shame given those involved. Rath is a fine actor who’s been growing in recent roles. He may be as young as John, and occasionally as green, but he is certainly more experienced and committed. Whenever we see the two on their stage, Rath’s range is in full view. John is barely as interesting as his characters, which may be one source of discontent.

Elkin, of course, is in fine form here, too. Saul Elkin plays a Saul Elkin type very well.

Our actors are certainly capable of more than their actors are, but we never approach the opportunity. There are touching moments, played nicely and with affecting direction, though they’re weightless without an arc to support them. It’s like tearing out a page of a book and reading it at face value.

Director Greg Natale does what he can, and stages it well enough, though his scene transitions are troublesome and many – which also fall under stage management’s responsibility, to be clear. Some are longer than their adjacent scenes. Large set pieces, visible in a two-minute scene, are brought on and off stage while transition music loops.

Might a more simplistic, two-chair approach have worked for a show about the craft of classical theater? Designer Joel Resnikoff’s work is actually quite wonderful, with much detail and a great partnership with Brian Cavanagh’s beautiful lighting. But there’s scenery that just gets in the way, too much material for a momentary appearance in a play about identity and soul. If only the play had more things getting in its way, there’d be something to move around.