Standing in “Orson’s Shadow”

A real life collision of legends of stage and screen that took place almost 50 years ago is a seductive, but dangerous, idea for a play.

“Orson’s Shadow”
by Austin Pendleton
Directed by Adam Zahler
Presented by the New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through March 18, 2007

By Bill Marx
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A real life collision of conflicting legends of stage and screen that took place almost 50 years ago is a seductive, but dangerous, idea for a play. The trouble is that the dramatist is content to sit back — once he arranges his tortured headliners in a neat row on stage — and let the vintage tittle-tattle and predictable hissy fits fly. And that’s what actor/playwright Austin Pendleton does in “Orson’s Shadow,” whipping up a genial, lackluster comedy out of the trials and tribulations of genius. There’s marquee appeal in the script’s gathering of big league personalities, including Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, and Vivien Leigh and the graying theater audience demographic is going for it. The play is being produced around the country. But does anybody under 30 know or care about these stars, aside from Welles the filmmaker?

Pendleton has plenty of glossy matter of fact and salacious rumor to bandy about for the older set. In 1960 at the Royal Court Theatre in London a production of Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist comedy, “Rhinoceros,” brought a big name cast together, for reasons personal as well as aesthetic. Welles agreed to direct a play he hates because it would help finance his film “Chimes at Midnight”; an over-fifty Olivier is starring in a script he doesn’t care for because he wants to remain au courant. The mentally unstable Leigh is breaking off her marriage to Olivier, who is seeing the twenty-something Joan Plowright, his co-star in the Ionesco.

The mastermind behind this ill-fated theatrical coupling of Welles and Olivier, who are feuding over perceived old slights and Hollywood jealousies, is renowned stage critic Kenneth Tynan, a fervent admirer of both men. The idealistic Tynan wants his heroes to renew each other’s glory, but he also has a career move in mind – the “New Yorker” theater reviewer would like a position as the dramaturge at the fledgling National Theatre, which is led by Olivier. Of course, the actor has to overlook that Tynan has given devastatingly bad notices to Leigh and even took a mild critical shot at Plowright.

The potentially compelling conflict here isn’t the impact of fame on careers or Pendleton’s theme, trumpeted by Tynan, that artists are insane, but the hall of mirrors erected by a show in which actors are playing actors who supposedly aren’t acting. This tension is caught well in British author Oliver Goldsmith’s ironic words about the great English actor David Garrick: “On the stage he was natural, simple, affecting; ‘Twas when he was off he was acting.” Self-delusion, conscious and unconscious, seethes underneath the comic charges and counter charges Welles and Olivier fire at each other and at Tynan. Perhaps because Pendleton is a performer, he coddles theater people by portraying them as emotional infants offstage, egos ablaze at every turn, awash in delusion, betrayal, love, and fears of aging. It doesn’t occur to him that, aside from the clinically depressed Leigh, Welles and company might play up their eccentricities as a tactic or could nimbly hide their anxieties in front of others.

In fact, the madness of art may spring from more than a little calculation; the trouble is that the play is too busy protecting and/or parading its characters, draping them in layers of self-destructive angst and callow bonhomie, to notice. Insecurities are blared like headlines in a supermarket tabloid, from Welles’s defensiveness about gaining weight and Olivier’s fright about growing older to Leigh’s mental meltdown. There is a particularly clumsy scene in which Leigh appears as a promiscuously ga-ga Angel of Death, propositioning a young smitten stagehand after serving Welles a big steak and handing a cigarette to Tynan, who would die, in his early 50s, of emphysema. At these points, the show comes off as silly outtakes from your standard melodramatic showbiz movie: these gifted egomaniacs aren’t responsible for what they do, they are puppets tied to self-destructive strings, acting out their paranoia and narcissism for our entertainment.

Besides the idea of when actors are on or off, Pendelton begs the question of whom is manipulating whom. The only character referred to as a “whore” in “Orson’s Shadow” is Tynan, the critic, and there is some truth to this. His role in the play is strange to say the least – why is he, a reviewer, taking part in running rehearsals? In real life, Tynan traded his place as an outsider by using his connections with insiders to become part of the action at the National Theatre. What the play doesn’t tell you is that, when Tynan was kicked out of that job (not before he helped shape our understanding of dramaturgy) he was betrayed by Olivier, among others. By treating the other figures as mad, Pendelton doesn’t have to look at the ways Welles and company sell out themselves or their work. Plowright comes off as the sanest of the lot, yet she has the least creative spark of any of the others.

The cast in “Orson’s Shadow” is challenged aplenty – not only are these actors playing actors but also, in some cases, they are playing great actors. The trick is to suggest Welles and company without trying to imitate them, because attempting the latter would risk comparison with the genuine articles. Yet if the performers don’t take risks, daring to conjure up some of the dazzling charisma of the originals, the evening will come off as a waxworks.

The New Repertory Theatre production, directed with earnest skill by Adam Zahler, steers clear of mundane mimicry, but the performers rarely excite or grip. They are content to be reassuring, never galvanic. Tuck Mulligan barks as Olivier, Debra Wise insinuates up a neurotic storm as Vivien Leigh, Steven Barkhimer blusters about as Welles. Helen McElwain supplies a safe and meek Plowright. I must put on the record that I talked to Jason Marr, who plays Tynan. He called me to pick up some tips about what a theater reviewer does. His portrait is too callow for my taste, though part of the problem is the script. At this point in his career, Tynan was a savvy operator trading on his connections and reputation as a veteran theater critic to move out of journalism. Here the compromised critic acts as if he was hanging around Welles, Olivier and the others for the first time, gawking like a kid, surprised and irritated at the arrogant dottiness around him. You wouldn’t know it from “Orson’s Shadow” but he, like the others, is crazy like a fox.

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