When Egos Collide
By Mimi Torchin
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
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.