Frank Dwyer’s “The Affliction of Glory” muses on and chronicles the life of celebrated English actress Sarah Siddons, but its dry tone proves more didactic than illuminating. Cross-cutting between Siddons’ own time (the 18th and 19th centuries) and the present day, play falls victim to a host of cliches, and, indeed, nothing original is managed here. Dwyer’s insertion of monologues actually delivered by Siddons should delight theater scholars, but most modern auds will be bored by the histrionics.
Dwyer’s play was commissioned by the Getty to complement the musem’s current exhibit, “A Passion for Performance: Sarah Siddons and her Portraitists.” Siddons (1755-1831) was the iconic actress for whom a much-coveted award in the film “All About Eve” was named. “Affliction” attempts to explore how this actress, lionized in the late-18th and early-19th centuries for her powers as a tragedienne, was transformed into a figure of legend.
Unfortunately, by diffusing the action between two worlds, the playwright undercuts his work’s focus. Matters are divided in twain: Siddons (Nike Doukas) musing on her life and art while sitting for a famous portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (JD Cullum), and Polly and Bill (Doukas and Cullum again) attempting to stage a play about Siddons.
But the play-within-the-play proves stilted, with Polly asking Bill pro-forma feminist questions in her attempt to “get” Siddons’ character. Bill, an eager-to-please if egotistical writer-director, attempts to mollify Polly but mostly just has her recite this or that speech from a long-forgotten Siddons vehicle. The show’s comic moments fare far better, especially a scene between a homosexual Italian painter (Cullum) and his valet (Patrick Egan) and one in which Siddons calls on George III (Egan) and Queen Charlotte (Cullum). “You make us feel,” the king tells Siddons in one of the play’s most intelligent moments. As much as Doukas looks like Siddons, she never really conveys the magic that the actress she portrays must have possessed.
Director Corey Madden uses the Getty’s awkward stage, a space usually reserved for lectures, to full advantage, employing John Iacovelli’s minimalist designs judiciously. Candice Cain’s period costumes are a sumptuous triumph. But Geoff Korf’s bright lighting and Marc Rosenthal’s projections (mostly of Siddons portraits) work against each other.