by Austin Pendleton
Directed by David Cromer
Barrow Street Theatre / 27 Barrow Street / (212) 239-6200

Reviewed by David Spencer

So there he is, Orson Welles, decades after Citizen Kane, still having all his work compared to it and thought wanting, still trying to grab at newer, greater glory, perversely defeating himself whenever even the glimmer of success nears, by abandoning the editing process or indulging his appetites in some alienating way, as if afraid of the judgment that would inevitably attend completion.

And there’s Laurence Olivier, having lost some favor with audiences and critics, his stentorian voice and scrupulous affectations seeming quaint in the wake of ever-more-pervasive realism.

And between them, critic Kenneth Tynan, best friend of the first, wishing to ingratiate himself with the second, hoping to urge them both away from the looming darkness of has-beenery to their greatest glory, and maybe he’s even done it, because he’s gotten Welles to agree to direct Olivier in Ionesco’s "Rhinoceros" at the Royal Court Theatre in London—and he’s gotten Olivier to accept. More potential still…Olivier is set to play not one of his usual Kings, Emperors or Princes, but rather "the little man," the one who cannot and will not change, who is ignored in the onrush of fascist conformity and for whom there is no greatness in defiance. A leap to realism within the structure of absurdism. Oh, what those Titans, Welles and Olivier could do!

If they could only get their shit together.

The time is 1960, the production was actually mounted, it did NOT enter the annals of theatrical legend, and master man of the theatre, Austin Pendleton, who is also a brilliantly witty and incisive playwright, has, in his third, latest and far and away best play, offered his speculative dramatization about what might have happened. You get the feeling that he isn’t far off.

First off—and I can attest to this first hand—Pendleton is one of those rare folks who can, with laser accuracy, intuit what a production’s backstage and creative-team life is like from the evidence onstage. Second—he loves the theatre and its people. Third—having one of the most astonishing resumes in American theatrical history (run his name through, see what it calls up), he has had his own first hand experience working with legends, culture heroes and icons—and he understands them with the compassion and insight of a gifted therapist.

What this brings to a theatrical event such as "Orson’s Shadow" is, and I can’t stress this enough, an utter lack of pretension and a near total sense of authenticity. The insider showbiz dialogue isn’t fake or cutesy or self conscious. It sounds absolutely right in the mouths of his characters because Pendleton has the advantage of being able to take the patois for granted.

Under the sly, understated direction of David Cromer, the cast (who originated their roles in an earlier Chicago production) is almost as authentic as the text. It doesn’t hurt that none of them are stars (yet) or even familiar to NY audiences, so we therefore don’t have to leap the mental hurdle of watching people we know well playing people we know well. They enter the stage persona-clean, and thus need only to convince us that we aren’t watching surface imitations. Since I daresay few of us would have known the real Kenneth Tynan, Tracy Letts (better known here as the playwright of "Bug" and "Killer Joe") has the distinct edge on creating verisimilitude, as a breathtaking intellect with as nearly (and literally) a breathtaking stutter and, from too much smoking, cough. His belief eases us into our own as the roaringly funny (and, never directly articulated, desperately sad) Welles of Jeff Still enters.

Once we buy into Welles, it is but a mild leap to embracing the sometimes eerily precise Olivier of John Judd. In short order we also meet Joan Plowright (the petite, energizing and compelling Susan Bennett) who was Olivier’s mistress at the time, and his leading lady in "Rhinoceros"—and Vivien Leigh, Olivier’s wife (Lee Roy Rogers), who was quite severely manic-depressive (and no meds at the time to stabilize the condition). Oh, and one character Pendleton allowed himself to invent out of whole cloth: a young director’s assistant with a Scots burr, named Sean (Ian Westerfer); surprisingly (though it shouldn’t be), he’s as interesting as the rest.

If there’s a flaw in the evening, it’s a slight miscalculation of structure or maybe just an underlying theme that is delivered in a manner too oblique to be perceived without it being more specifically highlighted. I say this having had, for reasons I won’t go into here, the unusual advantage (and pleasure) of seeing the play twice in one week—which gave me a chance to spot a connection many seem to have missed and go: "oh!"

Part of the play’s delicious battle involves the titan director trying to make the titan actor play a small man—something Olivier seems never to have done before. More than that, in "Rhinoceros" he’s supposed to profess love for a woman who is fundamentally damaged and unable to be a viable partner. ("How can I be in love with that?" he rails against Welles.) The irony never strikes him, though, that in real life, his situation has been heartbreakingly similar: he has never stopped loving his mentally unbalanced wife, even though she has made his life a nightmare. It’s actually as brilliant a conceit as everything else in the play, but it never comes in for a landing, because Ms. Leigh is a sidebar to the main action—and when she has her climactic confrontation, it is with Welles (who also fails to note the irony) and not Olivier, who has gone offstage.

But given the play’s riches, this is a small point. And you know what? Plays ain’t movies. Even after they open, you get to revise them.

What do you bet that Mr. Pendleton, being the hopelessly committed genius he is, gives it another whack before the next major production?

And trust me…there will be a number…

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