Oddly enough, Stanislavski’s classic primer might've lent itself nicely to a straight stage adaptation: the maestro framed it as the diary of a student called Kostya, who sits at the feet of his mentor, Tortsov (i.e., Stanislavski), absorbing the wise old man’s system and attempting his exercises. Good potential for oedipal tension there, at the very least. Maybe even a Black Swan kind of thing between Kostya and one of his classmates.
But Maher has (not unexpectedly) gone another way, choosing instead to give us his version of the making of An Actor Prepares.
It's 1935 and Stanislavski has writer’s block. The book he's been mulling for the last 30 years remains nothing more than a wild gleam in his eye. He arranges to give a lecture that will allow him to talk his thoughts out before an audience (us) and so, he hopes, achieve the clarity he needs to carry on. Dressed in a three-piece gray wool suit, O'Reilly's Stanislavski uses a newsboy's cap to play Kostya and pince-nez to indicate Tortsov.
In no time, however, he's joined by another Stanislavski, and then another, and another—seven doppelgangers in all—whose demands and disclosures make it clear that "Stanislavski 1" is struggling with much more than the problem of getting his thoughts in order.
The script looks to me like a breakthrough for Maher because it doesn't retreat from frank emotion. His other plays pay visits to terror and pity, sure, but they never hang around long enough to compromise their postmodern cool. This time Maher risks it. There's a down side: Devon de Mayo's staging tips over into the maudlin with a mushy tableau at quite literally the last second. Still, what Maher has done here suggests a brave new kind of engagement.
Similarly, O'Reilly displays a new depth to go with his usual intensity and wit. Stanislavski was 72 in 1935, yet O'Reilly is entirely believable in the role—not because he can play old (he doesn’t even try), but because he can play the psychic world of a formidable artist with some ugly memories. O'Reilly has acted in a whole series of Maher plays; he and his playwright seem to be maturing together in the classic manner.
This show is essentially a collegiate production, put on by Theater and Performance Studies/University Theater at the University of Chicago. Five of the cast members are students, and for that reason I can’t recommend An Actor Prepares without significant qualification. So I won’t. But if you’re interested in either a cunning script or the dynamics of an evolving professional relationship, or both, you might go take a look before it closes on Saturday. It's at the U of C's David and Reva Logan Center for the Arts.