There is a danger, when presenting a play-within-a-play, that the filling will appear a lot more appetising than the bread. Some writers achieve the balance between enveloped narratives with ease – just ask anyone who’s come away from Hamlet not talking about Gonzago – but others may find that the enclosed narrative adds little more than a window to a much better play. Such is the case in Daniel Kehlmann’s The Mentor.
We meet young playwright, Martin Wegner, and his reluctant advisor, Benjamin Rubin, at the start of what is intended to be a week’s creative retreat. Wegner’s latest work, ‘Without a Title’, is in draft form, and Rubin has his red pencil at the ready, eager to put his protégé’s offering through his filter of irrelevance and toxicity.
The age difference between the two writers is stark – but, when it comes to talent, the two men seem very much in the same league. Both have written one somewhat successful play. Rubin’s was read five whole times by Wegner’s gushing wife, who clearly must have a faulty Kindle and/or a tendency to get stuck in lifts. Meanwhile, Wegner’s first offering opened with 35 extras, a choir and a cement mixer. As measures of success go, it’s hard to tell which is the most implausible.
It’s also hard to work out where to position Rubin, as the narrative appears to applaud and mock him without any true commitment. But even this flimsy character is given more shading than that of Gina Wegner. Oh yes, she has a real hoity toity job, and can speak with authority about art. She can make confident, if inaccurate, statements about bipolar disorder in a brisk, no-nonsense tone, and she can knock down a shot of whiskey or two. But, like many a nice woman in a testosterone-driven play, she finds herself limited to massaging egos, arguing about the dishes and bickering about the bins – that’s until, with yet more implausibility, Gina finds herself lead too easily astray by a mentor eager to show her a handful of new techniques.
As Gina, Naomi Frederick puts her all into her performance, bringing refreshing bursts of measure and crisp articulation to a piece that is otherwise littered with clasped fists and spat out drinks, thrown MacBooks, fragile male egos and sneering, mean-witted tantrums. Unfortunately, against all of this, this smug, hammy piece gives Naomi about as much opportunity to thrive as Rubin gives to her character’s husband.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment is the casting of F Murray Abraham as the eponymous lead. Yes, it’s been 33 years since the actor swept up an Oscar as Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, but in no way is he a fading star resigned to mentorship programmes and stagnant anecdotes. As his character becomes increasingly intoxicated by cheap whiskey and inflated self belief, enduring in a world where he shifts more repetitions of the same joke than copies of his play, Abraham is resilient, valiant and magnetic. It’s a true waste to see such an immensely talented performer quibbling over a missed apostrophe.
The Mentor is on at the Vaudeville Theatre until 2 September 2017. Click here for more details.