- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

Actor Austin Pendleton’s highly entertaining comedy, “Orson’s Shadow,” gives you a glimpse into old Hollywood and an era when theater was still a major cultural medium from the ideal vantage point — that of a Peeping Tom. It’s infinitely more fun to peek in on such luminaries as Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Joan Plowright and Kenneth Tynan from a distance than actually be trapped in a room with the outsized egos, florid neuroses, and engulfing sense of need.

An off-Broadway hit directed at Round House with a sharp insider’s perspective by actor-director Jerry Whiddon, “Orson’s Shadow” is a deliciously witty backstage “What if?” play based on an actual event. In 1960, Welles (Wilbur Edwin Henry) was living in self-imposed exile from Hollywood, playing Falstaff in his own version of Shakespeare’s Henry plays, “Chimes at Midnight,” to miniscule audiences in Dublin. Tynan (Will Gartshore), an influential British theater critic, decides to champion his friend by pleading with Olivier (Anthony Newfield) — who, at the time, was running the National Theatre — that Welles should direct the London premiere of Ionesco’s absurdist play “Rhinoceros.” Nobody’s all that jazzed about Ionesco, but all three men see it as an opportunity — Olivier, to prove he’s modern and with it; Tynan, to become a decision-maker at the National; and Welles to get back on top and obtain funding for his film version of “Chimes at Midnight.” The cross purposes get even more convoluted when two women are thrown into the mix — Olivier’s mentally shattered wife, the old-school movie star Vivien Leigh (Kathryn Kelley), and his mistress, Joan Plowright (Connan Morrissey), a practical and down-to-earth young actress.

Any attempts to rehearse “Rhinoceros” quickly disintegrate into a riotous clash of temperaments and one-upmanship as the three men wrestle for control.

“Orson’s Shadow” cleverly underscores the conundrum of being a legend. Welles wants to be known for something other than “Citizen Kane” and “War of the Worlds,” but then he constantly boasts about his mammoth achievements before the age of 30. Olivier yearns to show the world he can be contemporary, but he is intricately mired in his image as a classic romantic hero. And Tynan becomes a victim of his own hero worship as his plan to bring together two giants he most admires proves to be an infamous stage disaster.

“Orson’s Shadow” is a kindhearted and often hilarious exploration of great artists at a crossroads in their lives, but a structurally sound play it is not. Having the erudite Tynan as the narrator is a brilliant move and allows for an abundance of wry barbs against critics and showbiz types, so it doesn’t make sense to have Plowright deliver the play’s sentimental, biographical coda. In a work of such rigorous wit, you question the appropriateness of two drawn-out, maudlin scenes depicting the ravages of illness — Leigh’s madness and Tynan’s emphysema.

Forming fully rounded characters out of luminaries is no easy feat, but Mr. Pendleton is both affectionate and observant in his renderings of Welles and company.

The actors also adeptly balance paying homage to the celebrities’ personas and making them touching and funny people in their own right. Mr. Henry possesses Welles’ famous velvety growl and the braggadocio, but he also shows him as a man of breathtaking insecurities and self-destructiveness. Mr. Newfield also captures Olivier’s flawless elocution and romantic image, as well as the inner tortures of a man who cannot let go of the past — whether it is his wife or the style of acting that made him a legend. He’s also priceless in a scene where Olivier grandly offers acting advice to Plowright, telling her to “find the love, always find the love’ — the last thing you need to do in an absurdist play like “Rhinoceros.” Mr. Gartshore, usually seen on local stages as a song and dance man, is dashing and charmingly erratic as Kenneth Tynan, a man for whom extremes were an art form. Miss Kelley scatters stardust in her wake as the troubled movie star Vivien Leigh, while Miss Morrissey grounds the play as the smart, sensible Joan Plowright.

It is a sad commentary on the times that Round House has to include a cheat sheet on the characters in the playbill for those who don’t know “A Touch of Evil” from “The Evil Dead.” How large Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier loomed in the 20th century, how quickly their shadows may fade away without a new generation to reclaim them.

***

WHAT: “Orson’s Shadow” by Austin Pendleton

WHERE: Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East West Highway, Bethesda

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Feb. 25

TICKETS: $25 to $55

PHONE: 240/644-1100

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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