Orson's Shadow

Review by Willard Manus

Austin Pendleton's backstage comedy, ORSON'S SHADOW, derives its laughs from the collision of several swollen artistic egos as they battle each other for dominance. Kenneth Tynan, Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier are the main contestants, joined by Joan Plowright and Vivien Leigh (plus a waspish stagehand). This theatrical equivalent of a roman a clef has been seen in L.A. before (in an Equity-waiver production at the Black Dahlia seven years ago), but now the Pasadena Playhouse has given the play new, much glossier life.

Set in 1960, ORSON'S SHADOW opens on the bare stage of Dublin's Gaiety Theatre, where a nervous, chain-smoking Tynan (Scott Lowell) is attempting to persuade his old pal Welles (Bruce McGill) to come to London to direct Olivier (Charles Shaughnessy) in a National Theatre production of Ionesco's absurdist play, "Rhinoceros." Tynan, the premiere drama critic of his time, has a couple of ulterior motives. By teaming up Welles and Olivier, the National will get a jolt of energy enabling it to shed its traditional, fuddy-duddy ways and spring to the forefront of modern British theatre. Tynan would also like to become the dramaturge of the new, chance-taking National.

Welles needs a great deal of persuading in Act One. Not only is he in Dublin performing his solo Falstaff show Chimes At Midnight (as a way of raising funds for the movie version), he doubts strongly whether he and Olivier could peacefully co-exist as managers of the National. On the other hand, he is not only persona non grata in Hollywood, his Dublin show is bombing. Grossly overweight and unhappy about the decline in his fortunes, he allows himself to be tempted by Tynan.

Act Two takes place on the stage of the Royal Court in London, where Tynan, Welles and Olivier meet to discuss--make that squabble over--Tynan's proposal. This is where ORSON'S SHADOW comes most alive as the two giants of stage and screen bang heads (with Tynan refereeing). Pendleton gives both men caustically witty things to say, even as he uncovers their dark, insecure sides.

Complicating things are the two women in Olivier's life. Sharon Lawrence plays his wife, Vivien Leigh, who has recently triumphed in A Street Car Named Desire despite her fragile mental state. Libby West plays Olivier's mistress, Joan Plowright, a spunky young actress whose career is before her (unlike Welles, Olivier and even Tynan, whose best days are in the past).

As directed by Damaso Rodriguez, the cast of ORSON'S SHADOW does yeoman work in bringing these wellknown characters to life, a near-impossible challenge considering that three of them--Welles, Olivier and Leigh--were bona fide geniuses. You can't impersonate genius. Either you have it or you don't.

The cast substitutes shtick for substance, but does it well enough to make the play work (aided by Pendleton's deft dialogue). Rodriguez's direction is clumsy (the actors often block each other while speaking), but he does keep the story moving along efficiently.

A more apt title for this play would have been Chimes At Midnight, for it really is a farewell, an elegy, to Olivier, Welles and Leigh. All three of them, we learn in an epitaph delivered by Plowright, faded from prominence in the next decade. Olivier did Rhinoceros, but never acted on stage after that (owing to illness); Welles never completed his Shakespearean films, and Leigh died soon after Olivier divorced her.

Presently running at Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave, is a new musical (based on the 1980s movie), Mask, written by Anna Hamilton Phelan, music & lyrics by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Call 626-356-PLAY or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org