The Abreact Performance Space is not the kind of place you’d expect to find in the bustling, flashy heart of Detroit’s Greektown. Floating above the mousaka and the rice and the slot machines and the strippers, the Abreact is nestled in a second-floor loft with views of the tourists and the beggars and the limos that are forever circling this stretch of East Lafayette and Beaubien.
There is no neon sign or searchlight marking the doorway, only a sign taped to the mail slot that reads, “Pull.” This instruction deposits you on the stairs, which lead to a living room (computer desk and aquarium, couches and chairs) full of milling people sipping out of Miller High Life cans. No ticket-takers (attendance is free) or ushers (that would be expensive) and apparently no stage, just a hipster pad in a high-rent section of town. People are sitting in chairs on the fire escape, enjoying a smoke, as an orange cat walks carefully on the window ledge. This isn’t going to be some Dada experiment where the patrons are the actors and the actors are the audience, is it? What is not immediately apparent is that behind a heavy curtain — which blends in seamlessly with the rest of the wall hangings and accoutrements — is where David Mamet’s play A Life in the Theatre will be performed.
Since 1998, the loft has been split in two by its occupants and former tenants to accommodate musical as well as theatrical productions. The director of the Abreact’s current show, Charles Reynolds, and his former roommate (now an actor in New York) decided that the best way to get on stage would be to build one. The theater’s small stage and seating for 50 (a comfortable collection of dining-room chairs, easy chairs and couches) is funky, functional and an ironic setting for Mamet’s tragic and funny character study of two actors, one old and one young, who share not only the stage every night but an uncomfortable friendship and rivalry as well.
A Life in the Theatre is an early work of Mamet’s (first staged in 1977), and his ferocious wordplay — where everything said is riddled with lies and delusion — is on display. Everything true is just under the foggy surface, diffused with politeness and social etiquette and empty gesture. Putting two actors, liars by trade, into the claustrophobic confines of a backstage dressing room and having them go at it gives Mamet and the players at the Abreact a rich vein to mine. The result is a very funny, very knowing, and very jaundiced trip through the slow cruelties of loneliness, failure and old age.
The one-act play is set almost exclusively backstage at a repertory company that the older actor Robert (Alan Madlane) and his fellow actor John (Bryan Spangler) share after repeated performances of howlingly bad plays. Robert has volunteered, without much prodding, we suspect, to tutor and look after his younger cohort with endless pointers and monologues, crammed full of his musings on theater and acting and life and how “sound is like an odor” and how he has “made a fetish of my imperfections.” At first, John eagerly participates in this long-winded and pompous instruction, paying mind to Roberts’ way of doing things. As his opportunities grow, and phone calls alerting him to auditions interrupt his “education” from the “master,” John starts to pull away. He cares for the tired and alcoholic actor, but his budding career has no time for these bull sessions. He’s leaving the old man, and the old man knows it.
Director Charles Reynolds stages the “fake” plays by putting the actors’ backs to the “live” audience, facing a painting of an audience by artist Michael Mikolowski. This device is incredibly effective, putting all of us in that dark and lonely dressing room, privy to all the secrets and sins that spill out in affected King’s English. Madlane and Spangler nail each nuance of these desperate men, both radiating the ego and pose and silent suffering that both characters experience throughout the course of the play. In the silent role of Stage Manager, Jennifer House takes what could be a thankless part and imbues it with manic, vaudevillian schtick.
The Abreact may not serve shish kebabs or pans of flaming cheese, but it does serve up a tasty evening with A Life in the Theatre. And you don’t have to wait in line for an hour to get it.
A Life in the Theatre is playing at the Abreact Performance Space (442 E. Lafayette, just west of Beaubien, above the Loco Bar & Grill) on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. until May 1. For reservations call 313-378-5404.Dan DeMaggio writes regularly for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org