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Theater Review: "A Life in the Theatre" at Working Class Theatre NW

Behind the greasepaint: a too-small dressing room

Mark Peterson, left, and Frank Thompson in A Life in the Theatre, now on stage at Tacoma's Working Class Theatre NW. Courtesy photo

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We were two or three scenes into David Mamet's two-hander A Life in the Theatre, the debut production from Tacoma's Working Class Theatre NW, when my wife leaned over and whispered, "People do not talk like this." I knew what she meant. Actors and critics often claim Mamet's truncated sentences and indirect ramblings mirror everyday speech patterns, but that's ridiculous. His dialogue is almost as stylized as Kushner's or Shakespeare's. Like both, it demands a particular skill from its actors: the ability to memorize, perform, and slightly overlap dialogue that packs a wallop without seeming to go anywhere in particular. The truth is it's a lot more fun to watch a Mamet play than read or perform one. I know.

At that early point in the play, I thought its stars were overacting, announcing pointless lines at each other with limited eye contact. It was all a bit Waiting for Godot. As the show progressed, however, I realized we were seeing two actors capably portraying two actors getting to know each other over time. John, played by Mark Peterson, is hitting the stride of his career. There are indications he may be on the verge of nabbing lucrative movie roles. Frank Thompson is Robert, a lifelong thespian who's seen it all but now has trouble remembering his lines. I've been John; I'm turning into Robert. I've been the guy who says things like "respect the craft" and "the theatre isn't a job, it's a calling." I love those guys, but yes, they do tend to drone on (or so I'm told by my wife).

Working Class Theatre NW was cofounded by Christina Hughes as her Master's thesis project. She's training to be a nonprofit manager; so, aptly enough, tickets are free on a first come, first serve basis. You'll want to bring seat cushions - trust me. Grade-school plastic chairs aside, director Luke Amundson cast and coached two talented actors in a play that ranges from sustained laughter (at the expense of a terse Gothic script) through angry confrontations to the pathos of an actor in decline. It's a barrage of setups in less than 80 minutes, and fills its time well.

Peterson lets his expressive face do much of the talking, with flabbergasted arcs of his brows, introverted immersion in his cell phone, and impatient sidelong glares. Thompson hugs a narrow path between insufferable and invaluable. Memorizing Mamet is half the battle here, but Peterson and Thompson charge past that achievement to score additional victories on the field of relatable comedy. If you're an audience member, will it help if you're an actor yourself? Yes, but let's face it: we all know a blowhard like Robert, no matter our profession.

On the way home, my wife concluded, "Maybe that's how people talk around David Mamet." She's probably right.

A LIFE IN THE THEATRE, 8 p.m. Friday through Saturday, through May 31, Working Class Theatre NW, 1102 A St., Tacoma, free,

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