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BOOK REVIEW

Wise, witty 'Letters' encourages actors

Letters to a Young Actor: A Universal Guide to Performance, By Robert Brustein, Basic Books, 234 pp, $22.50

Robert Brustein's ''Letters to a Young Actor" is the ideal book for parents to give to children who've just announced they're switching majors from international relations to drama. (That's after the wailing and gnashing of teeth have stopped.)

Brustein, the founding director of the American Repertory Theatre, is never going to give budding actors all the dire reasons why one shouldn't go into the profession; he loves it too much. But after nearly 40 years of being an actor, director, teacher, artistic director, and critic, he knows the occupation deeply.

Brustein has supervised more than 200 theater performances, acted in eight, directed 12, written or adapted 15, and reported on thousands more. In his elegant, avuncular style, he takes the fledgling actor from the first steps of performing in college into the real world, and through relationships with artistic directors, directors, playwrights, and critics.

It's not a training manual, although he mentions several good ones, but more a demystification of the business of theater and where the actor fits into it.

His own entry into the world of theater was through elocution school, where he was sent to correct a lazy ''L." The acting bug bit, but not for long. He then went into academia. Brustein is equally knowledgeable about Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Pirandello, Beckett, Mamet, and the avant garde. He knows exactly what kind of hell critics can create.

He gives tried-and-true counsel: Stay the course. Grit is an actor's most important characteristic. Stay in college, it'll make you a better actor. (Parents will like that one.) Get training. Your body must be flexible, your voice able to do accents and carry long distances.

Acting, he says, is a calling, not a job. At the same time, he understands the various pulls on an actor, who might want to join a repertory company for its artistic challenges and stability, but who also must face losing out on possible film and television roles by doing so. ''At its best," he says, ''theater is not an amiable pastime, but something that can leave an indelible mark on your conscious and unconscious life. Achieving that kind of impact should be your highest goal as an actor."

Brustein name drops all over the place, as well he might. He recognized Meryl Streep's talent when she was at Yale Drama School. He accompanied Stella Adler to a production of ''The Seagull." And he has worked with Cherry Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Walken, Debra Winger, William H. Macy, and many others.

Local audiences will get a kick out of his rueful recounting of some backstage dramas with the European auteur directors ART has hired in the past. In 1987, Yuri Lyubimov made increasingly outrageous demands of the company (expensive apartment, huge rehearsal space, more rehearsal time) and finally walked out. Andrei Serban saved the day by restaging ''The Good Woman of Setzuan" in three weeks.

The book is quite up-to-date. In a bit about one-man shows, he mentions Pieter Dirk-Uys, the South African performer who appeared at ART just a few months ago, and ''I Am My Own Wife," which was a hit on Broadway as well as during its brief Boston visit in April.

Sometimes the book seems to veer into ''my life as an artistic director." Brustein says that the auteur director Robert Wilson (''the CIVIL warS") only started doing classics after Brustein urged him to. But if the author sometimes seems to brag, he also recounts his mistakes, such as having Shakespeare scholars Harold Bloom and Stephen Greenblatt write reviews of ART shows that went in the company newsletter.

In the end, while Brustein never sugarcoats the poverty-making, insecure, demoralizing aspects of the profession, he does make it sound noble. Theater, he insists, is relevant. It's especially needed during fatalistic times because it is dedicated to life.

''The actor makes terrifying stories transcendent, partly by making them comprehensible, partly by leavening the terror with pity. That is the reason the audiences will continue to visit the theater to see you, dear Actor, the living embodiment of their joys and fears."

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