Reviewed by Will Stackman
In its latest incarnation, Austin Pendleton's Orson's Shadow, opens with Kenneth Tynan (Jason Marr), seeking Orson Welles (Steven Barkhimer), on the stage of a theatre in Dublin. The maestro has been performing The Chimes at Midnight, his Falstaff play adapted from Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2. The ambitious young critic is about to propose to his old friend that Welles should direct Laurence Olivier (Tuck Milligan), in the London premiere of Ionesco's Rhinoceros opposite his soon-to-be wife, Joan Plowright, (Helen McElwain). Of course there are problems: Sir Larry's still married to Vivien Leigh (Debra Wise), who's descending further into madness; neither Welles or Olivier really likes the play; and Tynan has a further agenda of becoming Olivier's literary assistant for the soon-to-be National Theatre.
What makes the play all the more interesting is, as the playwright freely admits, that the action comes largely from his imagination. Tynan had nothing to do with the production of Rhinoceros though he did become part of the National Theatre. How and why Olivier chose Welles to direct him in the play is a bit of a mystery. The strained relationship between the Oliviers was evident, perhaps based on her having gone back to Hollywood to do Streetcar... for Kazan after having been directed by her husband in London. Plowright did play Daisy in the piece after her success in both The Chairs and The Lesson made her "up and coming."
Pendleton began his acting career as the young nebbish in Arthur Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad... and was invited by Vivien Leigh to repeat to role in London. He declined. He encountered Welles when they both appeared in Catch-22. He's since done a variety of T.V. and movie roles and regional theatre, appearing for the New Rep here for the New Rep as a senile King Lear, the Marquis deSade in Quills, and of course as Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, which he did on Broadway where he played Estragon. Orson's Shadow has been gestating for quite a while. After a few years of development it was first produced by Steppenwolf in Chicago, where Pendleton is a member. After several regional productions the play had a limited run of Broadway last season. And he's still working on it, tuning its level of Absurdity to exploring the potential madness of the theatre.
This current cast, directed with finesse by award-winner Adam Zahler, places each character in their own story. Barkhimer gives us Orson fighting for his career, hoping to somehow film The Chimes at Midnight which he first conceived as a teenager. Milligan, another Steppenwolf member, gives us aging Larry in a domestic turmoil at the height of his career. Wise gives us Vivien acutely aware of her fragile mental condition but a star to the end. Marr gives us the critic, sure of his opinions but seldom of himself. McElwain gives us a down to earth Plowright, determined to get Larry to go beyond the energetic and old-fashioned approach to acting by which he's previously prospered. The play has no real plot but rather a series of collisions between personalities, resolved only by the fate of each principal. The ensemble work orchestrated by Zahler achieves the conclusion.
The set by Janie E. Howland features a false proscenium, a purpose built collection of scenic odds and ends and a faux plank floor. The effect of backstage between shows allows for brief inserts of other locations. Molly Trainer's 1960's costumes capture the characters, from Larry's conservative gray suit to Welles' magisterial black, from Leigh's glamor to Plowright's working-class forthrightness. Jeff Adelberg's lighting, Scott G. Nason's sound, and Matthew CW Page's period props combine to achieve the New Rep's usual quality production.