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Saturday, July 16, 2005


Orson's Shadow
by Austin Pendleton
Off-Broadway, at the Barrow Street Theatre

A character in Orson's Shadow (the title one, in fact) laments at one point, "The worst part of being a living genius is you only live to disappoint." Austin Pendleton's nifty conceit in his play is to take two geniuses from the theatrical past--when they were living--and explore their one collaboration as a case study in disappointment itself.

As for the outline of the story, in the words of one of the titular character's many uncompleted films...It's All True: in 1960 London, a young critic, Kenneth Tynan, has brought together an unlikely pair of two personal heroes to star (Laurence Olivier) and direct (Orson Welles) in the "new" Ionesco, Rhinoceros. It's a quixotic effort to salvage each man's stagnating career. But the production is doomed--as Pendleton makes no secret of in his amusing deployment of the curse of the Scottish play throughout. Nobody involved cares a fig for the absurdist script; Olivier is distracted by his failing marriage to one actress (Vivien Leigh) and his burgeoning affair with another (Joan Plowright); Welles's mind can't get off the money he needs to raise to complete old projects and finance new ones.

The "shadow" of the title looms large indeed over the proceedings. It is not just the rotund one of Welles, but that of celebrity, of expectation, and of youth. Ken Marks's "Larry" embodies these themes in his very appearance--not of a dashing prince, but the grey-sideburned "banker" he became by the time he ran the National Theatre. Delightfully neurotic and spineless, with mid-life crisis written all over him, Marks (a recent cast replacement) constantly reminds us of the gap between public and private personas, between on-stage and off-. Jess Still's assured "Orson" may convey fewer levels, but certainly provides the requisite voice, presence, and gruffness called for. This is Welles at only 45, but already washed up, already binging on steaks, trying desperate to look forward not back. And the melancholy is palpable in Stills' delivery of that Falstaffian line immortalized by Welles and here adopted by Pendleton as a moving motif for the play: "We have heard the chimes at midnight."

The play is enjoyable on many levels: gossip, a love letter to acting, a meditation on the nature of fame. That the first act buckles a bit under the load of tons of exposition is understandable given the long and fascinating careers of the players (plus the fact audiences can't be assumed to know them anymore!). But when Pendleton finally gets Welles and Olivier together after intermission to rehearse Rhinoceros, he's liberated from biographical fact into theatre history fantasy. Watching Larry bumble through his Ionesco scene while Orson alternately chows down and throws chairs is great fun for any buff, and Pendleton (a veteran actor himself) knows how to write this kind of scene "from the inside." The subplots involving Olivier's love triangle and Tynan's oncoming emphysema I didn't find as satisfying, but they are, in a way, necessary to fill out a play based only on a footnote.

Orson's Shadow is very funny at times, and very sad. It is both romantic about the theatre and utterly real about its loneliness and its ephemerality. Whatever its shortcomings, I just can't resist a gushy, "quote whore" of an appeal--If you love the theatre, you must see this play! (And I mean it.)

Other reviews: NY Times;NY Post;Village Voice


Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog a few minutes ago, and I'm glad to see that you discovered, and appreciated the appeal of, Orson's Shadow. As a former critic, I understand your reluctance to give a gushing recommendation, but as one who has also worked in the theater, I have to agree, though I'll put it differently: anyone who has a fondness for the business of plays and players (or for Tynan) should see this show.

Playgoer said...

Thanks, John. I completely agree. "Fondness" is the appropriate word here--yet without whitewashing at all. The fondness comes through the honesty.