It has been some while – a decade in fact – since F. Murray Abraham (playing Shylock for the RSC) plied his considerable talents on a British stage. Best remembered for his Oscar-winning turn as Salieri in Milos Forman’s film version of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, and as the CIA’s Dar Adal on the TV series Homeland, it’s unlikely his star turn in The Mentor will put bums on seats or add lustre to his CV.
In The Mentor, by German playwright Daniel Kehlmann, whose books in his home country outsell J.K. Rowling’s, he plays a waspish playwright called Benjamin Rubin who, at age 24, wrote a celebrated play on which his now evanescent reputation rests. Although studied in universities, the play is never revived, and his career is on the skids.
In the opening scene, a contemporary playwright, Martin Wegner (Daniel Weyman) has just won the Benjamin Rubin award at a Tony-like ceremony for his latest play, though why there is an award in his name is unlikely given Rubin’s waning status, not to mention that playwrights rarely, if ever, have major awards named after them. Be that as it may, we then flashback several years to a luxury villa where a wealthy arts foundations has, for a fee of 10,000 euros, asked Rubin to mentor a work in progress by a self-satisfied, over-confident “new generation” playwright who turns out to be the very same Martin Wegner of the prologue.
Wegner’s latest opus is pretentiously called Without a Title, and he too is receiving 10,000 euros plus five days free accommodation for himself and his wife Gina (Naomi Frederick) as the beneficiary of Rubin’s expertise. But nothing in this particularly idyllic garden is lovely when, having read Wegner’s play, Rubin initially comments about the font in which the script has been set. He then goes on to talk about some misplaced apostrophes in the text. The only positive remark he can muster is that the manuscript is free of typos. Finally, when cornered for an opinion, Rubin mock-quotes certain pretentious passages to prove his point and damns the play as “dreadful.” He then adds injury to insult by asking Wegner, “Do you absolutely have to be a writer?”
It all ends badly with the hapless Wegner throwing his computer and manuscript into a pond, storming out of the villa and leaving Rubin free to hit on Wegner’s wife – whom, we learn, doesn’t think much of her husband’s work either.
What, in essence, the play is really about isn’t the hurtful satisfaction Rubin enjoys by dumping on the younger upstart and his unstageable play, but whether any of us has the right to pronounce on the artistic merits of a piece of work. What Kehlmann seems to be questioning is one’s perception of art and what qualifies us to pass judgment on it. In the end, does it even matter?
Nothing earth-shattering here, nor anything Yasmina Resza hasn’t already confronted in her superior play Art. Despite Christopher Hampton’s nifty translation, which is often quite funny, there is a palpable air of contrivance to this 80-minute literary farrago.
Would Rubin, who clearly needs the money, have been quite as destructive, insensitive and boorish knowing he might never be invited to mentor again? We’re told that before approaching Wegner (who insisted on the 10,000-euro fee when less was being offered), not a single young playwright applied to take part in the mentoring sessions. Really? Five days including meals, accommodation, a luxury villa, plus payment and the opportunity to have their work assessed by an established playwright, and no takers? I just don’t buy it.
Surprisingly Wegner, the intellectual great white hope of playwriting, doesn’t know what “bipolar” means. And would this cocky, arrogant young man, despite being so grossly humiliated, have thrown his laptop into a pond? (His manuscript maybe, as he could always print it out again.)
I had no misgivings, though, about Abraham’s performance. With his resonant voice and his impressive presence, this 77-year-old veteran still commands attention. Whether mischievously scoring points off his younger adversary or comparing the relative merits of Speyside whisky with Johnny Walker Red Label, he stamps his authority on a role that, like the play itself, promises more than it delivers.
Weyman’s Wegner effectively fluctuates between full-throated arrogance, self-doubt and despair. Frederick as his wife and Jonathan Cullen, who completes the cast as the put-upon skivvy-cum-arts-administrator in charge of the five-day retreat, do what little the script requires of them nicely. The set, whose most striking feature is a pair of chairs in the shape of a hand, is by Polly Sullivan.