THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Vaudeville Theatre, 404 Strand, London WC2R 0NH
By Daniel Kehlmann
Until September 2, 2017
Reviewed by Michael Burland
Think F. Murray Abraham and you probably think 'evil and saturnine', after screen roles such as the CIA's Machiavellian Dar Adal in Homeland on TV and Mozart's nemesis Salieri in the movie Amadeus. Surprisingly, in a recent interview with The American, he was keen to stress how much he loves to hear audiences laugh. For the first 15 years of his career, he says, he did a lot of comedy in live theater. That's why he's chosen to star in The Mentor, a new play by Daniel Kehlmann.
Kehlmann, best known in his native Germany for bestselling novels which stir together wit, magical realism and philosophical ideas, now lives in New York, and Abraham, a resident of Greenwich Village, has brought Kehlmann's play to England in a translation by the British writer and adapter Christopher (Les Liaisons Dangereuses/Dangerous Liaisons) Hampton.
Abraham achieves his aim regarding the humor of the piece. For all the heavier topics that Kehlmann aims to inject into the play (...human relationships, taking control of one's life...) it's the comic jibing at – and between – pseudo-intellectuals that works best. His Benjamin Rubin is a self-important playwright whose career has consisted of one great play written when he was 24 that propelled him to literary stardom followed by decades of second rate stuff written, he says, to feed his many alimony commitments.
He is thrown together with up and coming author Martin Wegner (Daniel Weyman) in a literary retreat to work on the younger man's first play, pretentiously entitled Without A Title. Jonathan Cullen's frustrated arts administrator tries to smooth the fricitons that arise as Benjamin dissects the work, initially not as expected, but focusing instead on the font it's printed in and "an obviously misplaced apostrophe". When pushed for his opinion on the play's merits, Benjamin declares it worthless and asks Martin "do you absolutely have to be a writer?"
Is this honesty or jealousy? Is he testing Martin's resilience, or trying to ruin his confidence while Benjamin tries to make a move on Martin's cool and classy art historian wife Gina (Naomi Frederick), who supports her husband financially but not, perhaps, in his work. This section of the one act, 80 minute play provides many of the best lines: the quality of the draft "doesn't mean you're not talented, it's just... how can you tell?"
Both men believe they are a genius and that the other is, respectively, a has-been and a wannabe. Is either right? Or both? Much is left deliberately unclear, including whether Benjamin and Gina spend the night together after Martin storms out.
The action moves briskly along under the direction of Laurence Boswell (he previously directed Florian Zeller's trilogy The Father, The Mother and The Truth which were also translated by Christopher Hampton and premiered in the UK at the Royal Theatre, Bath as was The Mentor).
The Mentor is not itself a great work, always a problem with art that criticizes other art or artists, but it's an enjoyable farce. It's worth the ticket for F. Murray Abraham who achieves his wish to hear an audience responding with gales of laughter. Mr Abraham, please come back to the London stage and take on a great play – comic or tragic.