In “Emphysema (A Love Story),” Janet Munsil’s play based on Kenneth Tynan’s infatuation with silent film star Louise Brooks, the esteemed drama critic describes himself as “a case of style over substance,” a label that is patently wrong for Tynan but turns out to be only too true for the play.
Staged by Stratford Festival director Diana Leblanc on Astrid Janson’s striking set and conceived as part fantasy, part reality by Munsil, the material looks great and does occasionally deliver provocative storytelling, but more often it gets mired in the many sides of Brooks’ independent hedonism and Tynan’s endless obsession with Brooks’ character Lulu in the silent film classic “Pandora’s Box.”
In real life the two met in 1979, a year before his death, and the play is largely based on Brooks’ and Tynan’s accounts of his interview with the aging film actress, but this fictional portrait never digs deeply enough to be truly revelatory. Perhaps Munsil simply relied too heavily on a quote in Tynan’s profile of Brooks, where she says: “In writing the history of a life I believe absolutely that the reader cannot understand the character and deeds of the subject unless he is given a basic understanding of that person’s sexual loves and hates and conflicts.”
The play’s strongest scenes rest in that domain: Munsil has made flesh the character of Lulu (Leah Pinsent) and has her interacting with Tynan (Frank Moore) as his living sexual fantasy. In some of the best sequences, footage of Brooks in “Pandora’s Box” is projected onto the rear wall while Pinsent and Moore mirror the movements in the film.
It’s a powerful counterpoint to the 71-year-old Brooks (Charmion King), who has been a virtual hermit for many years and appears in the play in her housecoat and orthopedic boots, leaning on a cane.
The problem is, although we find out a fair bit about Brooks (great chunks of dialogue have been lifted directly from Tynan’s profile), we learn little about Tynan beyond his illness and his sexual preferences.
Moore’s mannered performance draws heavily on the dandy, using great flourishes of the ever-present cigarette to make his point, but totally absent is the notion of Tynan’s “style as a form of courage.” Pinsent, who gets to do little more than pose and pout, can’t help out much, while King tries to single-handedly act some heart into the piece. It’s too big a battle, however, and one never gets the sense of the instinctive chemistry and remarkable brain power that must have fueled their short relationship.