Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Me and my shadows

Lost with the stars: Debra Wise, Adam Soule, and Steven Barkhimer in Orson's Shadow

There’s more than one shadow hanging over Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow (at the New Rep through March 18); the shades of three great stars, Orson Welles, Lawrence Olivier, and Vivien Leigh, should really get equal billing. They all, of course, moved between the worlds of theatre and film with astonishing ease and brilliance – and all intersected, briefly, during the course of a production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros in 1960.

Pendleton’s conceit is that Rhinoceros, while a mere blip in the biographies of Welles and Olivier, served as something of a turning point for both. Olivier was not only at a crossroads between wives (Leigh and the younger Joan Plowright, with whom he starred in the Ionesco); but he was also hoping to shed his old-school Shakespearean skin and gain some street cred with the new Angry Young Men (hence his alliance with Kenneth Tynan, their critical herald, who’s on hand for Rhinoceros). Welles, meanwhile, had just finished his first film in years, Touch of Evil, which some believe was his finest since his RKO days, and was hoping to finance a cinematic turn as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (which actually was his finest film since his RKO days).

The trouble with Pendleton’s concept, of course, is that nothing actually happened during Rhinoceros that set either man on a new path to success or failure; true, they had a falling out, and Welles was dropped from the production – but he’d already been dismissed from Universal for evading the editing of Touch of Evil, so his film renaissance was essentially DOA. As for Larry, the crisis in his theater career wouldn’t come for a few more years (when stage fright finally prevented him from going on), and his film career, after a spike with that year’s Spartacus, wouldn’t revive until Sleuth more than a decade later.

What Pendleton is selling then, is essentially exposition, not action – and not primarily plot exposition, either, but emotional and artistic exposition. Thus he inserts Kenneth Tynan into the proceedings (he wasn’t actually there) to focus the artistic issues, and conjures a climactic, imaginary visit from Viven Leigh to push everyone’s emotional buttons (including her own).

Of course, for this constellation of lost stars, artistic and emotional issues were hopelessly intertwined: Welles and Leigh were carrying the weight of early success followed by decline, while Olivier was obsessed with stopping what had happened to them from happening to him (all while trying to save the feelings of the unstable Leigh, whom he still had affection for, even as he dumped her).

Clearly, merely reviewing this show requires quite a bit of exposition - but if you’ve hung on so far, you’ll be happy to learn that the current New Rep production, under the skillful direction of Adam Zahler, manages to make all this background material theatrical, even compelling. Pendleton doesn’t have a full play here, and he knows it – he abruptly wraps with a monologue from Plowright; but the scenes he does have grow from the bare bones of gossip and backbiting to something rather more engrossing - even, eventually, fascinating, and the New Rep cast plays them with subtlety, sympathy, and a sly sense of humor.

The production, alas, only half-fulfills one promise it implicitly makes – to give us a sense of its protagonists in the flesh. Of the central trio, only Tuck Milligan, as Olivier, comes through with a convincing impression. He slightly resembles the actor (with glasses, he’s close to the Olivier of Marathon Man), but his vocal performance is a nearly eerie piece of ventriloquism, and his carriage and moves deftly suggest the famously elegant, fussy manner (Olivier’s bisexuality is obliquely, if hilariously, referenced). I missed the undercurrent of terror which would eventually force this greatest of actors from the stage, but in sheer technical terms, Milligan is transfixing – and of course technical acting was what Sir Larry was all about.

Perhaps faced with this achievement, Steven Barkhimer simply doesn’t attempt to evoke the Welles vocal signature, that purring cello which would sell no wine before its time – and it’s too bad, really, because Barkhimer’s costume and trim beard easily put him in the visual ballpark. Still, his Welles is a sharp, if not deep, presence through the play, and we quickly adjust our expectations of him. As Vivien Leigh, meanwhile, Debra Wise offers a third response to the play’s challenge; she roughly suggests Leigh’s Blanche DuBois, but concentrates more on her character’s core, unstable as it is – and so walks off with the evening’s best sequence, a “mad scene” that progresses in baby steps from elegantly loaded small talk to truly terrifying emotional chaos. It’s the climax of the play, one that sources in the need for artistic glamour the seeds of self-hatred, even self-destruction - and once Pendleton nails this (admittedly time-honored) theme, he seems to think his work is done; luckily for him, Wise has been so compelling that we still leave the theatre feeling satisfied.

Meanwhile, Helen McElwain brings about the right mix of pliant, but sturdy, smarts to her Joan Plowright, while Adam Soule supplies amusingly naive backup as the stagehand Sean. As Kenneth Tynan, however, Jason Marr feels miscast – he’s fine and funny with all the exposition (which Pendleton has the stage smarts to self-consciously parody), but he’s just too innocent and hearty, both physically and psychologically, to convince us that he’s on the road to emphysema, or that he’s emotionally perverse (Tynan liked spanking women in private as well as in print). And thus he can’t quite contribute to our growing sense of the heart-breaking gap between person and persona, between artistic consummation and diminished expectation, that the play suggests. It’s one of the small missteps that shadow Orson’s Shadow, but which the production at its best easily makes us forget.

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