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A CurtainUp Review
Orson's Shadow

I have warned you about this traveling you do, I have told you you'll get sick. -- Orson.
Well Orson, you know how it is. One shows brilliant early promise and then one travels.---Ken, after Welles tells him to have a brandy to calm one of his coughing fits.

John Judd and Susan Bennet
John Judd as Lawrence Olivier, Susan Bennett as Joan Plowright
(Photo: Colin D. Young)
Orson Welles, who cast a large shadow on the filmmaking world with his seminal Citizen Kane, was both actor and director. Austin Pendleton, the author of Orson's Shadow in which Welles plays a major role is also a two-hat man -- make that three, since in addition to acting and playwriting he is also an acting teacher.

Since its world premiere at the Steppenwolf in Chicago (in 2000) Pendleton's play has always had its eye on New York. Numerous productions later that aim has been realized with an open-ended Off-Broadway run with the original director and the actors who created the roles of Welles (Jeff Still), Laurence Olivier (John Judd) and his physically and emotionally frail wife, Vivien Leigh (Lee Roy Rogers) on board.

Pendleton's re-imagining of actual events takes us back to the 1960 rehearsals of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros, directed by Orson Welles and starring Lawrence Olivier and Joan Plowright (his then paramour and soon-to-be third wife, now portrayed by Susan Bennett) ) at the newly formed National Theatre. Having Welles, whose career had been in limbo for nineteen years, direct the play was set in motion by Welles' ardent admirer, critic Kenneth Tynan (Tracy Letts) for whom this matchmaking was a stepping stone to a job as the National's literary manager which Olivier had been named to head.

It's a situation that proved to be a natural for Pendleton to let his imagination fill in the details about what transpired when these legendary theatrical figures were actually thrown together. However, if this were simply an arty People style romp with lots of quotable lines, Orson's Shadow would appeal strictly to stage and film buffs or people who were around when Olivier and Welles were known to all and Tynan's by-line as a critic was familiar to New Yorker readers. To be sure, the audience is not shortchanged in the witty remarks department but, while stage and film buffs will probably be the play's core audience, what has given it the legs to carry it this far is its more universal thematic objective: to depict the fragility and vulnerability of talent that can transform those who had everything (like Welles early on in his career) into mere mortals.

The play has undergone some tweaking since I saw its still in development mini-run a few summers back at Williamstown Theatre. This includes a much needed cut of some fifteen minutes. Though a bit more blue-pencilling wouldn't hurt, David Cromer's production and the performances overall have gained depth.

Takeshi Kata's spare set with its dark brick wall and upstage staircae fits its new only slightly larger home very well. One couldn't wish for a more expressive atmosphere for the two theaters at which the play unfolds: first the Gaiety in Dublin where Welles was playing Falstaff in a less than enthusiastically received Chimes at Midnight, the second and third acts at London's Royal Court where the rehearsal of Rhinoceros gets underway.

The opening scene lit only by a ghost light so that Welles is heard but not seen is even more strikingly reminiscent of Citizen Kane than I recall. Tyler Micoleau's lighting throughout is superb.

As the scene moves to the Rhinoceros rehearsal the competitive egoes go into full gear. Plowright patiently tries to please both Orson and Larry. Ken tries desperately to mediate their sparring. One such effort has him hilariously topping Larry's "I lost my dear mother at twelve" and Orson's "My mother died when I was nine" with "And my mother died insane! Let's get back to work!" Mostly, the sparks flying around the rehearsal ignite Tynan's stuttering and coughing (he died of emphesyma).

To add to the theatrical fireworks there are two visits from Vivian Leigh; the first is via a telephone conversation between her and Olivier (that somewhat out of synch with the rest of the staging rolls her on stage telephone in hand); the second brings her to the theater to interact not just with Larry, but with Joan, Ken, the production stagehand (Ian Westerfer) and, most entertainingly and movingly, with Orson. During a brief onstage dinner for two he humorously confesses that when he was still in demand in Hollywood and "thinner" he was offered the Scarlett role. In a more serious vein, he warns the emotionally fragile Vivien that "Larry is a man who gets rid of people because they remind him of loss and confusion" and urges her to "leave him now and let him live without the one thing that will teach him what he needs to know."

Plays about real people, especially bigger-than-life types whose distinctive physical appearance and voices present actors with the task of impersonating without sacrificing in-depth portraiture. John Judd, Jeff Still and Lee Roy Rogers, none of whom can be considered look-alikes of their characters, once again succeed in creating credible facsimiles by nailing their characters' personalities and traits.

Tracy Letts, who's new to the Kenneth Tynan role, is an inspired choice; again, not because of any strong physical resemblance, but because he so perfectly captures the chain-smoking, intense Ken. As Welles blusters through his insecurities, and Olivier keeps his private insecurities encased in actorly self-assurance and iron self-control, Tynan's stammer seems a symbol for the collapse of his fearlessness and wit as a critic in the presence of those he views as multi-gifted. It's also interesting to see Letts appearing on this stage where he was last represented as the author of the hit thriller Bug, also backed by Orson's Shadow producer Scott Morfee (Review).

Susan Bennett does well by the only player whose career is in its flowering state, rather than in decline or at a moment of crisis and change. She actually looks quite a bit as one would imagine Joan Plowright to have looked at that age. Ian Westerfer as Sean (also new to this production) adds a nice touch as the young Irish stagehand who has only the vaguest knowledge of why the others on stage are famous.

Neither the director or the playwright have done anything to get rid of some structural weaknesses -- like the superfluous announcement of the intermission or the overcooked bit when Leigh is forced to demonstrate her real life Blanche DuBois madness by coming on to Sean. The fine moments in the telephone conversation between Larry and Vivian at the end of the first act are diminished by going on too long; the same is true of the Rhinoceros rehearsal which has some of the play's most incisive dialogue but lets the re-takes of Larry "Oh Daisy, I never knw" scene with Joan go beyond funny.

The slow spots and awkward scene endings aren't enough to keep me from recommending this for anyone who likes vintage celebrity gossip intelligently written and expertly staged and performed.

Review of Austin Pendleton's Uncle Bob

Orson's Shadow
Written by Austin Pendleton
Originally Conceived by Judith Auberjonois
Directed by David Cromer
Cast: Susan Bennett (Joan), John Judd (Larry), Tracy Letts (Ken), Lee Roy Rogers (Vivien), Jeff Still (Orson), Ian Westerfer (Sean).
Set Design: Takeshi Kata
Costume Design: Theresa Squire
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design: Jonah Lawrence
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15 minute
Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street @ 7th Avenue. 212/239-6200
From 2/11/05 for an open-ended run; opening 3/13/05
Tues through Sat @ 8:00PM, Sat & Sun @ 3:00PM, Sun @ 7:30PM. Tickets: $55
Last of 349 performances: 12/31/05.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 12th performance
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