Produced by Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Kathryn Kelley and Wilbur Edwin Henry (Photo: Stan Barouh)
Imagine Noises Off, Michael Frayn’s comedy about a grade-Z theater company’s attempt to put on a farce (or read about Arena’s production of it here). Now, substitute theater icons Orson Welles (Wilbur Edwin Henry), Joan Plowright (Connan Morrissey) and Sir Lawrence Olivier (Anthony Newfield) for Frayn’s misbegotten company. Next, instead of the smarmy farce, substitute Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Finally, instead of the trivial and banal considerations which drove the action in Frayn’s play, substitute core questions about duty, ego and the nature of the theater itself. You would have something very much like Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow, now playing at Round House Theatre.
That is to say, you would have something like Orson Welles himself. Funny. But heavy.
The plot itself is simple, and taken from life. Critic Kenneth Tynan (Will Gartshore), desperate to move into the more elevated business of theatrical production, proposes that Olivier engage Welles to direct Olivier in Rhinoceros at Olivier’s Royal Theatre. Although Olivier and Welles cordially detest each other and neither of them likes the play, they both agree for complex reasons involving ego, the need to have their modernism affirmed, and cash-flow. Olivier has the additional problem of trying to end his twenty-year marriage to the tubercular, manic-depressive Vivien Leigh (Kathryn Kelley), whom he loves but can no longer tolerate, so that he can continue his affair with Plowright.
The resolution of these challenges is – well, there is no resolution, except to the degree that life itself is a resolution. Plowright appears at the end of the play to sum up the remaining lives of these artists. Although the summation is artfully done the events being summed lack dramatic impact, and we are reminded, once again, that invention trumps real life for artistic value every time.
There are parts of this play, and this production, which are as good as anything I’ve seen on stage this season. The opening scene, in which Tynan attempts to engage an obstreperous Welles in his scheme, is absolutely audacious and hilarious, particularly as it breaks down the fourth wall to mock hackneyed efforts to tell exposition while – telling exposition. A second-act confrontation between Olivier and Welles over the interpretation of Olivier’s Rhinoceros character (and, by extension, of Plowright’s) is a vital, moving meditation on the actor’s art, and the need to shed ego in service of the truth. An impromptu steak-and-wine party involving Welles, Leigh and Welles’ truth-telling manservant (a very funny Clinton Brandhagen) seemed as absurd as anything in Rhinoceros.
You may have noticed that the common element to each of the play’s best scenes is the presence of Henry as Welles. Henry gives a bravura performance, goosing each scene with adrenaline and testosterone. Although Henry does not fully possess Welles’ basso profundo resonance (neither does any other actor in the world, with the possible exception of James Earl Jones) he has Welles’ scheming energy down pat. Whether wolfing down two steaks and advising Tynan to eat more or plotting to get “Hungarian money” for his film version of Othello, Henry’s Welles is an intellectual given wholly over to act. Welles, who is at the time of the play performing a version of Henry IV Parts 1 and II from Falstaff’s perspective called Chimes at Midnight, calls Falstaff’s pseudo-optimistic response to the King’s cruel rejection to mind: “I shall be sent for in private to him: look you, he must seem thus to the world: fear not your advancements; I will be the man yet that shall make you great,” he says to his confederate, Shallow. Like Falstaff, Welles was unable to deliver on his assurance.
When Welles is not on stage, though, things drag a bit. In particular, the scene in which Tynan talks Olivier into hiring Welles seemed to go on too long by half. Garthshore’s Tynan, all stutters and emphysemic coughing, is a satisfactory foil to the actor’s casual, almost unconscious cruelty. (When Tynan blurts out that he wants to work for Olivier at the Royal Theatre, a horrified Olivier responds “Good God! Don’t tell me you want to be an actor!” As Tynan attempts to stammer out a denial, Olivier adds, unnecessarily, “because, you see, you can’t even talk.”) But neither Garthshore nor Newfield can breathe sufficient life into dialogue that meanders around Olivier’s relationship with Welles, the financial condition of the Royal, Olivier’s views on Rhinoceros, Tynan’s long-ago criticism of Leigh’s performance in Antony and Cleopatra, and Olivier’s emotional connection to Leigh and Plowright (who is present in the room and serves as sort of a referee between the two men). By the time Olivier interrupts the scene to take a phone call from Leigh, it is hard to remember whether he has agreed to hire Welles, and, if so, why. In short, this scene is an information dump, done in precisely the manner that Pendleton ridiculed in the opening scene.
In addition to Henry and Brandhagen, Morrissey deserves kudos for her strong and intelligent Plowright. Morrissey fully inhabited her character, installing authentic body language to her movements and remaining relentlessly in character even for protracted periods of silence. Gartshore’s twitching and coughing seemed a bit forced, and his dialect occasionally faded, but he was recovering from an illness severe enough to force him to cancel his previous night’s performance. (Ironically, having a cough makes it more difficult to do a stage cough, since you can’t risk losing control of your coughing.) He delivered some searingly funny lines, however, with dead-on comic timing.
Kelley’s Vivien is a superb impersonation – look, sound, and gestures – but not, as yet, a fully realized performance. Pendleton gave Leigh some spectacular mood swings in the second act, but Kelley’s execution of them was too abrupt for my taste.
For people who are interested in theater from the inside out – who savor the construction of a theatrical experience with the joy of a magician learning a new trick – Orson’s Shadow has much to offer. But understand that it is a history lesson, and a theater lesson, and a lesson on movies, and an acting lesson, and if school is not your cup of tea you are likely to get impatient with this show, notwithstanding its many virtues.
By way of full disclosure, I must tell you that a close friend of mine has represented Mr. Gartshore during his work in New York. I do not believe that this has affected my review, however.
(Run time: 2 hours: 15 minutes) Orson’s Shadow plays at the Round House Theatre Bethesda (4545 East-West Highway) Wednesdays through Sundays until February 25. Wednesday performances are at 7.30 pm; Thursdays through Saturdays are at 8 pm; and Saturdays and Sundays are at 3 pm. Tickets range from $25 to $55 and can be obtained by calling 240.644.1100 or the theater’s website. Be advised that some actors smoke herbal cigarettes onstage.