Review: The Mentor ★★★ – Daniel Kehlmann’s waspish wit makes intellectual sparks fly

Narcissism is trending, so Germany’s wunderkind Daniel Kehlmann (bigger there than JK Rowling) is in tune with the Zeitgeist in this tale of an ageing literary lion seeing off the threat of a cub writer by rubbishing the work he’s supposed to be nurturing. Literary legend Benjamin Rubin (F Murray Abraham) still dines out on the hit play he wrote in his youth – a lucrative meal ticket as he’s mentoring budding playwright Martin Wegner for just one week under a prize scheme that earns both writers €10,000.

There’s no denying the elegance of Kehlmann’s set up. First dibs goes to Rubin, who gets to establish his character with insecurities about being a one-hit wonder – his querulous nature flagged up by a list of demands, including his Scotch of choice. It’s enough to try the patience of ineffectual arts administrator Erwin Rudiceck, presiding uneasily over this battle of egos. The names suggest the European location of Kehlmann’s play (Rudiceck is Czech, Wegner German, Rubin alone could be a Jew from either side of the Atlantic), though Polly Sullivan’s lush villa setting (it’s Rudiceck’s incidentally), with its wonderfully pretentious chairs that ape huge sculptured hands, sits as well in New England as, say, in the old country of Mittel Europa. Aspiring artist Rudiceck is looking for approval for his own artistic oeuvre, monochrome mood pictures handily displayed on his phone.

So we have the measure of these two by the time Wegner and his ice-cool art historian wife Gina arrive. Kehlmann drops some heavy hints that Wegner’s play, with its 35 extras plus cement mixer, might be a tad pretentious and costly to stage. But he’s had a ringing endorsement from a top critic and Kehlmann leaves us guessing whether Rubin is simply doing a demolition job out of envy of the younger man or whether he has a point. We also suspect that they see in each other the mirror of the past and the spectre of the future respectively.

More to the point, elegant though this 90-minute comedy is, pithily translated by Christopher Hampton, with nifty direction by Laurence Boswell and fine character work and interaction between Abrahams’ spot-on solipsistic Rubin, Daniel Weyman’s equally self-centred Wegner, Naomi Frederick’s coolly intelligent Gina and Jonathan Cullen’s rueful Rudiceck; yet it does not quite make the transition from the intimate studio of its UK debut at Bath’s Theatre Royal. But it does give its audiences plenty to discuss over the post-show dinner for which Kehlmann has thoughtfully given them ample time

By Judi Herman

Photos by Simon Annand

The Mentor runs until Saturday 2 September. 7.45pm (Mon-Sat), 3pm (Thu & Sat only). £19.50-£75. Vaudeville Theatre, WC2R 0NH. www.nimaxtheatres.com/vaudeville-theatre

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