Although it features works by some of my favorite playwrights, I've never had much use for British author and essayist Kenneth Tynan's notoriously naked theatrical revue Oh! Calcutta!. But before he wrote for the stage, Tynan wrote about it. He was an infamous theater critic, and, as anyone who ever found themselves impaled on one of his spiky metaphors might tell you, he could be as fearsome as they come.
He was my kind of critic in both his florid praise of good work and his cruel condemnation of the willfully mediocre. And I'm not ashamed to admit that watching Jerry Chipman's no-nonsense take on Tynan in Circuit Playhouse's nearly superb Orson's Shadow gives me the sort of special joy I can usually only experience when I'm alone with a porno magazine.(That's a special inside joke for the true-blue Tynan fans among us. You're welcome.) And Chipman's not even the best part of the show.
Orson's Shadow, actor/playwright Austin Pendleton's darkly comic meditation on fame and decay, is a rare beast indeed. It's the fictionalized account of a meeting between well-known historical characters that doesn't go out of its way to cram a lifetime's collection of quotes into the span of two hours.
It is set in 1960, amid the rehearsals for a production of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play Rhinoceros, which was directed by Orson Welles (Nate Smith) and starred Laurence Olivier (Tony Isbell) and his post-Vivien Leigh paramour Joan Plowright (Mary Buchignani). Tynan was the conduit that brought these monstrous, and monstrously fragile, egos together. And Pendleton makes the entire experience exquisitely painful.
Orson's Shadow begins in Dublin with Tynan dropping in on Welles, who's performing the role of Falstaff in his unsuccessful play Chimes at Midnight, a revisionist take on Shakespeare's Henry cycle. Welles, who has grown immensely fat and bitter over his exile from Hollywood, refuses to acknowledge the obvious: that he's playing to empty houses. He even grows furious at the mention of his most famous film, Citizen Kane, which he describes as having "directed from my highchair." Although he's contemptuous of Olivier for having turned Henry V into a "scoutmaster" and Hamlet into a "bad Joan Crawford movie," Welles will do anything to bolster his ego and make enough money to self-finance his little filmmaking habit. He agrees to go to London with Tynan, convincing himself, eventually, that he's the only man for the job.
Isbell's performance as Olivier may represent the most detailed work of the hard-working actor's career. He's the perfect blend of vanity, fussy insecurity, and "animal alertness," and never once does it seem like he's attempting an outright imitation. Likewise, Irene Crist is convincing as the soon-to-be-ex-Mrs. Olivier, whose grasp on sanity is tenuous and at times quite terrifying. Buchignani's performance is solid, as usual, though Plowright's character is a sweet, reasonable bore compared to the rest of Pendleton's menagerie. As Sean, the play's only non-celebrity character, Buchignani's real-life husband John Hemphill is the very definition of fifth business.
Nate Smith gives the show's weakest performance in the role of Welles, but it's hardly the actor's fault. After all, Welles was 26 when he wrote, directed, and starred in Citizen Kane. Orson's Shadow is set 20 years after Kane's premiere, and Smith, a smart, award-winning actor with a particular gift for inventive comedy, is merely 22. Compared to his more age-appropriate castmates who wear their roles like a favorite pair of bedroom slippers, it's obvious that Smith suffers from an abundance of youth. The harder he pushes to make us believe he's Welles, the less we believe him. This potentially fatal casting flaw is never more than a minor annoyance in an otherwise outstanding production.
Directed with a nearly invisible hand by Pamela Poletti and designed by Bill Short with some subtle nods to several famous films, Orson's Shadow is easily one of this season's most satisfying productions. More like this one, please.
Orson's Shadow at Circuit Playhouse through July 6th