Writer Daniel Kehlmann is a big name in his native Germany, with 10 highly regarded novels to his name. This is his second play and arrives in the West End via the same route as French playwright Florian Zeller, who achieved critical acclaim for The Mother, The Father and The Truth. It’s directed by Laurence Boswell, artistic director of the Ustinov Studio in Bath — where the the Zeller plays first appeared — and like those, is translated by Christopher Hampton.
But while Zeller’s three dramas were masterpieces of construction, with writing and characters that moved the audience and plot twists that constantly wrong-footed them, Kehlmann’s play struggles to hold the attention even with a modest 80-minute running time.
At a country retreat, ageing writer Benjamin Rubin (F Murray Abraham) has been engaged at a substantial fee to critique a new play by up-and-coming writer Martin Wegner (Daniel Weyman). Rubin wrote a play in his 20s that elevated him to literary heights, but has never achieved the same glory since. However, that doesn’t stop him from trading on his reputation with diva-ish demands.
Daniel Weyman, Jonathan Cullen, Naomi Frederick and F Murray Abraham (photographs by Simon Annand)
The two men come from different schools of thought regarding the process of writing; Rubin is the traditionalist, while Wegner is more experimental. Their clash of styles is enough to cause friction, but when Rubin declares Wegner’s play dreadful and worthless, the knives are really out. The younger man proves as self-centred as his instructor and takes the criticism very badly indeed, by turns dismissing his mentor as being stuck in the past and mortified.
Both lead characters are thoroughly unlikeable. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what could have been a biting satire on ego and the pretentiousness of artists never really hits home and just becomes, well, pretentious.
It’s ambiguous whether Rubin truly dislikes the play, whether his comments are driven by jealousy, or whether his antagonism is all part of a bigger plan. But when Wegner’s wife Gina (an underwritten part but well played by Naomi Frederick) declares, “I’m not sure I really care any more”, you know how she feels.
F Murray Abraham, who’s best known to British audiences as Dar Adal in Homeland, brings a touch of class to the role of Rubin and makes the most of some delicious putdowns: “What font is this in?”, “There are hardly any typos in the second part”. And Daniel Weyman makes the most of the man who is initially nervous in such exalted company, but who grows in confidence and eventually unravels before our eyes.
In the end, though, our greatest sympathy is for Erwin Rudicek (Jonathan Cullen), a would-be painter who has ended up as an arts administrator and has to act as referee between these two monstrous egos.
The Mentor is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 2 September
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