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Stephen Peabody as Orson Welles and Jen Danby as Vivien Leigh in a scene from Austin Pendleton's Orson's Shadow, directed by Lauren Reinhard at Studio Theater on Theater Row. Photo credit: Lisa Raymond

When Egos Collide
By Mimi Torchin

Orson's Shadow
By Austin Pendleton
Studio Theater on Theater Row
424 W. 42nd St.
Box office: 800-432-7250


I think I might have just discovered why Charlie Sheen's epic and endlessly televised public meltdown monopolized the entertainment media and so many television fans' minds this past year. In this age of nonstop key-hole-peeking, most of our screen and theater stars are just too darn ordinary. Sheen was a narcissistically vivid, if often cringe-inducing, exception. I came to this realization Saturday afternoon while watching Mississippi Mud Productions's delicious revival of Austin Pendleton's Orson's Shadow, a wittily voluble and often hilarious backstage play about bigger-than-life stars and their even bigger egos and neuroses: Orson Welles, Vivien Leigh, Sir (as he liked to remind people) Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Tynan, and a young Joan Plowright. Now, those are people worth being a fly on the wall to observe. Just be careful you don't get smushed on that wall by a flying chair! I almost did.

Like a Lifetime Movie, only classier, the play is based on actual events. It has many of the elements of those sudsy guilty pleasures: infidelity, regret, mental and physical illness, a little violence, gossipy revelations, and suspense. (Will the play within the play, Ionesco's Rhinoceros, make it to the stage? Will Chimes at Midnight make it to the screen? Will Vivien Leigh make it through the show without a breakdown?) Orson's Shadow also has crackling dialogue, insightful performances that on occasion eerily invoke the people on whom the characters are based, and lots of laughs--something you almost never find in a Lifetime Movie, at least not intentionally.

Set in 1960 on two nearly bare stages, the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin and the Royal Court Theatre in London, the play's plot is deceptively simple. Ken Tynan (Eric Rice) has come to the Gaiety where Orson Welles (Stephen Peabody) is playing to empty houses in Chimes at Midnight to convince his friend to direct Welles's rival ("He ruined me in Hollywood in 1948!" Welles reminds us endlessly) Laurence Olivier (Andy McCutcheon) in Rhinoceros for the nascent Royal National Theatre. Tynan then must convince Olivier to accept Welles as the director. He hopes this matchmaking will ultimately convince Olivier to make him a partner in forming and running the National. The rest of the play (spoiler alert!) takes place during rehearsals at the Royal Court for that very production. Olivier's new young flame, Joan Plowright (Dana Jesberger), is his costar, and his current but soon to be ex-wife, the fragile and tempestuous Vivien Leigh (Jen Danby), is also woven into the plot, if not entirely seamlessly.

Only this plot scaffolding is simple. The underlying themes, which provide the foundation for all the drama and surprising humor that make the play so fascinating, are not. A meditation on the nature and burden of genius and great success at an early age, the insecurities of being a star, the pain and price of love, and living with madness and obsession, Orson's Shadow exposes the human foibles and fears of these theatrical giants with a sharp but loving scalpel. Blood is shed, even if it turns out in the end to be only stage blood. The god-like players are mere humans after all.

The cast is uniformly excellent and sometimes mesmerizing. I was wondering and worrying how anyone could hope to embody Welles, a legendary figure with an outsized figure and voice. But Stephen Peabody gives a stellar turn as this Titan and manages to make him both the giant of our memories and a man of great warmth and humor. I often forgot I was watching an actor and not the man himself, though that would of course be impossible, since all the characters except Plowright are dead. Also burdened by the fact that most of us know what Laurence Olivier and, especially, Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O'Hara, for God's sake!) looked and sounded like, both Andy McCutcheon and Jen Danby didn't seem in the least intimidated. Although McCutcheon never really brought the physical Olivier to mind, he did bring the persona to life with great bombast and a dash of irony. He was also very funny.

Olivier would probably not be amused by our amusement. Was he really such a pompous ass, I kept asking myself? Apparently he was and McCutcheon makes him pay for it in this performance. Danby sometimes appears to channel Leigh supernaturally, disappearing inside her thin skin and scary bipolar mind. Both of her scenes gave us a Leigh on the verge of or in the full-on throes of a manic episode, and her jingle-jangle nerves and out-of-control energy made me feel a little on edge myself. Was that empathy or just the rewards of a good performance? Either way, you feel for her but are happy she's not your wife.

Eric Rice didn't have to worry about fitting into the audience's memory of Ken Tynan since he was a critic and writer and his image and idiosyncrasies aren't burned into our brains. But his nuanced and finely etched performance made me feel as though I knew Tynan, not just knew of him. When you learn in an epilogue that he died at 53 of emphysema, it comes as no surprise. He seems convincingly on the verge of collapse throughout the play. I enjoyed Dana Jesberger's serene Joan Plowright. Young, full of promise, swept up in the heady high of a love affair with the great Olivier, Plowright's good sense and down-to-earth approach to work was ballast in a stormy sea of unfettered egos and one-upmanship. Jesberger also looked like the young Plowright, which older theatergoers like myself could well appreciate. In the least interesting or developed role (and the play's only fictional character), Adam Newborn was energetic as Sean, Welles's youthful Irish assistant. His little sparrow of a character did well to be noticed at all on this stage full of Peacocks.

Lauren Reinhard directed with a firm hand but a loose grip, which is not a contradiction in terms. The production was fast moving and surefooted, even if the play is a little over long, and the actors never seemed shackled to an overdetermined concept. Blissfully, they all seemed to move within the same play. That sounds like the least one should expect, but sadly it's often not the case, especially in productions of Shakespeare where warring acting styles are common and can be fatally distracting. This play had clarity of purpose that was like a roadmap pointing you in the right direction but not distracting you with too many signs.

If I have one quibble it would be with the occasional over-loudness of the performances. The tiny Studio Theatre on Theatre Row is an intimate space that looks like the rehearsal space it's supposed to be without the necessity for elaborate sets. You really feel like you're eavesdropping on private events, especially at the sides where a few seats are literally on the stage. On the other hand, because the characters are so theatrical and enamored with the sounds of their famous, mellifluous voices, the actors' fortissimo delivery makes some sense. It's also true that with dialogue this intelligent and characters this entertaining, you don't want to miss a single word.


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