The Goodman begins its David Mamet festival by reviving his early study of youth and age in the theater. Mamet’s deceptively slight play remains an awe-inspiring display of craft, suggesting layers of relationship in the sparest verbal touches. It’s also frequently hilarious, as he conjures up a lost world of hospital melodrama and lost-at-sea stories. Given the play’s delicacy, it lives or dies at the mercy of its performers. Luckily, Robert Falls’s production features the exceptional David Darlow as the older actor, Robert. Darlow’s expansive manner seems from the first to conceal depths of uncertainty and disappointment. He’s ably matched by Matt Schwader’s John, whose apparent lack of guile itself covers a fervent ambition. Both actors play Robert’s gradual eclipse by John with impeccable timing and pathos. Mark Wendland’s remarkable stage design thrusts us into a simultaneously claustrophobic and multidimensional backstage space, from which the only visible route to freedom is the occasional glimpse of the stage. If the rest of the Goodman’s festival sustains the quality of this production, it’ll be a major event indeed for Chicago’s theater. (John Beer)
“A Life in the Theatre” plays at Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, (312)443-3400, through April 9.