Sex and theater criticism are not synonymous. Although the majority of ink-stained wretches clean up well, it is a rare occurrence for theatergoers to whistle appreciatively under their collective breaths and say “Wow, now there goes a gorgeous hunk of critic.”
Dangerous sex appeal is classically the provenance of the actors onstage, the stray Svengali-like theater head or magnetic director. Not the critic.
That all changed with Kenneth Tynan, the British theater and film critic, subject of the dashing one-man show Tynan, written by Richard Nelson and Colin Chambers and starring Philip Goodwin as the cultural and social provocateur towards the end of his sybaritic life.
Tynan made theater criticism sexy—he was a slim, gilt thing, a Playgirl centerfold with a big, um…vocabulary.
It’s not that you merely wanted to sleep with him, you wanted to be him. He was part of Paris in the ‘50s, mingling with American ex-pats, an eager participant in the sexual revolution of the ‘60s, as well as the era’s champagne socialism. He was like a New Yorker article in the flesh—hobnobbing with friends Laurence Oliver and both his wives, Tom Stoppard, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Jim Jones, Janet Flanner, Tennessee Williams; gracefully at home in the south of France or a London town home; gifted with noble good looks, a wicked streak, and the ability to bend words into arabesques or scimitars according to his will.
C.S. Lewis was his mentor at Oxford, he got to meet (and worship) the silent film star Louise Brooks, and he created the smut opus Oh Calcutta! Who wouldn’t want to spend time with him?
Precisely the allure of Tynan, where appreciators of theater lore, witty aphorisms, and sex fetishes will probably be more than content to spend 95 minutes basking in Kenneth Tynan’s libertine glow.
The show has little in the way of embellishment—to distract from the cashmere cadences of Tynan’s language would be unwise. There is nothing but a standard black office chair, some lighting, and projections of salient quotes and images washing across an exposed brick wall.
On the Studio stage, and in life, Tynan commands center attention. With his elegant diction and carriage and talent for genteel mimicry, Mr. Goodwin makes a fine Kenneth Tynan. He shows the man as rather a ruin—in the throes of emphysema, his financial and personal life in shambles, his sexual obsessions becoming almost the farcical machinations of an old man. Yet, Mr. Goodwin’s portrayal also lets you see what was—the knack for being in the most exciting place at the right time, the ear for collecting delicious stories, the face that launched a thousand quips, and most importantly, the prose that unrolled across the page like a lustrous Persian carpet.
Based on Tynan’s diaries, the show reveals the man as at once deeply introspective and an enormous show-off. You relish the anecdotes about theater greats—who knew John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson were so funny?—and the dizzying number of literary and stage luminaries, of whom he name-drops with deceptive casualness. Tynan demanded that you be dazzled, to consider him not only a great critic, but the creator of a scene enjoyed only by the privileged few.
But Tynan also gives you a taste of the flip-side of the realities of such a seemingly charmed life. As enamored as we are of Tynan’s talent as a raconteur and wish he could go on talking forever, you also get the sense that day to day life with him was sheer hell. Especially if you were a woman either married to him or one of his mistresses. He was boorish with women, a boozer, in and out of hospitals due to heavy smoking, and pulled such spoiled brat stunts as buying a Jaguar when he could not support his wife and children. And his obsession with spanking and sado-masochism, it is not really all that shocking and because of that, Tynan could probably have used less emphasis on the sordid. So he liked to be spanked and spank willing sex partners—big deal. He could write rings around most other people.
Listen to him, read him—luscious. Have him in your life—no thanks. The irony of that is too delicious since Tynan reveals that one of literature’s most astute observers and inciters of art is himself best viewed from a distance, safely tucked away on a stage where he can do no harm.
by Richard Nelson and Colin Chambers
Directed by Paul Mullins
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission