The Theatreguide.London Review
Vaudeville Theatre Summer 2017
A lightweight comedy with half-hearted pretensions to more, this play by German writer Daniel Kehlmann (here translated by Christopher Hampton) makes for a short – barely 70 minutes – and undemanding entertainment.
Just don't get suckered into thinking it's about anything.
Some arts foundation is funding an experiment in which an established playwright will spend a week tutoring a promising young writer. Both men are being generously paid for their time, which turns out to be their main reason to participate, and both find the experience sobering and ego-shaking.
The first revelation for each is that neither was an ideal choice for the project. Far from being a major writer, the older man had one hit forty years ago and has been coasting on it ever since, while the younger man's promise consists of one play with a twelve-night run in an obscure German town.
The mentor's ego is bruised by the admission that the student had to be bribed to participate because no one wanted to be taught by this Boring Old Fart, and the young writer is shaken when the B.O.F. declares him to have no discernible talent and advises a different career choice.
Part of the fun for the audience is that both men's judgements of the other are right.
As played with finely-modulated relish by F. Murray Abraham, the mentor really is a B. O. F., with a small repertoire of rehearsed witticisms and anecdotes he repeats verbatim whenever someone new enters.
And Daniel Weyman makes the younger man a humourless cousin to Chekhov's Konstantin, writer of plotless and pretentiously 'philosophical' and 'poetic' drivel.
(Also present are the man from the arts foundation, a bit of an artistic wannabe himself, and the young writer's wife, the most successful and level-headed of the bunch.)
The core of the play lies in the two writers arguing over the quality of their work and legitimacy of their criticism, each right about the other and blind to his own flaws.
There's some casual abuse of the foundation guy, an almost just-because-it's-expected-of-us flirtation between the older man and the woman, and some painful truth-telling between husband and wife.
There are even some deep-sounding comments on the nature of art and criticism and about reality being what we choose to remember about it. But they don't hold up under any serious thought and are wisely not allowed to interfere with the gentle flow of the comedy.
The tone is kept light, and even the most stinging criticisms, flashes of despair or brief moments of self-awareness are presented as comic under Laurence Boswell's adroit direction.
F. Murray Abraham lets us see what an old fraud the mentor is from the start and then entertains us with the character's carefully polished but never successful attempts to disguise that reality. Daniel Weyman hides his character's imperfections longer, doling out the comic revelations as he goes along.
Naomi Frederick cleverly keeps the woman a bit of an enigma throughout, and Jonathan Cullen generously serves the play by being the butt of many of its passing jokes.
The Mentor is about as trivial a comedy as can be, but like its two writer characters it has the knack of occasionally sounding like it is actually saying something.
And if you don't expect anything more, that may be enough for a summer evening's entertainment, even at full ticket prices for less than one act's length.
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