By Leslie Kobylinski
Produced by Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Janice Cane
The Director: The Third Act of Elia Kazan, now making its world premiere at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, sheds new light on its subject. Playwright/director Leslie Kobylinski’s script delves into Kazan’s childhood, particularly his relationships with his Greek parents. In fact, the majority of the play reflects on Kazan’s earlier life; a more apt name might have been The First Act of Elia Kazan.
Some prior knowledge of Kazan’s life would help audience members appreciate the play, so here is some background: Kazan was a member of the progressive and influential Group Theatre and later went on to found the Actors Studio in New York, along with fellow Group Theatre member Cheryl Crawford. Kazan received three Tony Awards for direction of All My Sons, A Streetcar Named Desire and J.B. After he moved to Hollywood, Kazan again directed Streetcar, starring Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh. His 21 film credits also include On the Waterfront and East of Eden.
Kazan won two Oscars for his work, but when he won an honorary Oscar in 1999, many of his peers refused to applaud because of his testimony in 1952 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Although he admitted to his own brief tenure with the Communist Party, Kazan initially refused to “name names” of his peers who were also members. Ultimately, Kazan did name names out of fear of being blacklisted by the right, only to be shunned by the left.
Kobylinski spends relatively little time on that dramatic portion of Kazan’s long life. Instead, she focuses on the people in his life and his experiences with them that ultimately led to that fateful decision. In a way, The Director is cathartic for the fictionalized Kazan. This time, he is naming names of the people who shaped him into the individual who brought so much beauty to the stage and screen, and so much rancor to Hollywood.
With a father who called his son “a pebble in my shoe” and a mother from whose milk he “imbibed strength to defy tyranny,” Kazan’s defiant but conflicted spirit is no surprise. He “wanted—needed—to be anyone but [his father’s] son,” but he clearly strove to make his father proud.
Kobylinski’s script and Rick Foucheux’s performance show Kazan’s inner struggle. He claims to be a moral man, but in the next breath he admits to marital indiscretions because he always desired what he didn’t have. His voice is clear and strong as he names names for HUAC, but his face betrays his tortured emotions.
Kazan often seems in awe of his own past, thanks to two-time Helen Hayes Award winner Foucheux’s remarkable expressiveness. Before he utters a single word at the beginning of the show, his face speaks volumes. He is by turns proud, frustrated, indignant, resigned, smug and in love. Few actors can carry a one-man show—the memorization of all those lines is a daunting enough task—but Foucheux brings Kazan vividly back to life. It is a pleasure to watch him.
In a one-man play, the sound and lighting essentially become supporting actors, and Matthew Nielson (sound designer), Steve McWilliams (composer) and Justin Thomas (lighting designer) are worthy of their roles. Kazan’s memories are infused with an almost eerie sound at times, like a finger running along the rim of a water glass. A shift in Kazan’s thoughts is marked by a sound like a deep intake of breath. The sounds and music are appropriately subtle and effective.
Thomas, in particular, deserves his own curtain call. As a child, Kazan recalls, all the “beauty and light” of his fair-skinned and fair-haired classmates “landed all around him” but never reached him. That is not the case here, thanks to Thomas. When Kazan reflects on starker memories, a lone spotlight casts a gray pall on Foucheux’s incredibly expressive face. When he remembers his first wife, Molly (Thacher)—his Stella, he says—Thomas bathes him in a rose-hued glow.
It is these side references to characters and actors that make the play such a treat, and highlight Foucheux’s convincing performance. When Kazan casually mentions “Artie” (Arthur Miller), imitates “Ten” (Tennessee Williams) and heaps praise on Brando, the audience feels privileged to get a glimpse behind the scenes of Hollywood and Broadway. Foucheux can elicit this effect because he is Kazan.
Also magnifying Foucheux’s talent is the minimalist set—just a single wooden chair, much like the one Kazan must have sat in on the witness stand before HUAC. Foucheux spends the majority of his 70-minute performance sitting in the chair, but even then he varies his posture and expression enough to keep the audience engaged. He also rises indignantly in front of the chair, delivering the Group Theatre’s doctrine about telling the working man’s story. In one rapturous moment he even stands on the chair, basking in the long-ago appreciation of an admiring audience.
Kobylinski and Foucheux spent three years developing The Director, and their efforts have paid off. With Foucheux, Kobylinksi is just as capable of drawing out an emotive performance as Kazan was with Brando and countless other actors.
(Running time: approximately 70 minutes) The Director: The Third Act of Elia Kazan runs through May 13 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road. Tickets are $25–$35 and may be purchased by phone at 240-644-1100, online or at the Round House box office in Bethesda.