You might expect a play in which Kenneth Tynan, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Joan Plowright and Orson Welles are the principal characters to be a gossipy game of inside pool. But Austin Pendleton’s witty and arresting new play , “Orson’s Shadow,” is a thematically complex look at what might have taken place when Welles tried to direct Olivier and Plowright in the 1960 London production of Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.” This is probably the best new work to emerge this season in Chicago, and also a fine production with quite credible impersonations of the central figures.
“Orson’s Shadow” is being presented on the first floor of the Steppenwolf’s parking garage, newly remodeled as an experimental space seating only 60. David Cromer, an imaginative local director, has used the raw but huge performance space to vividly evoke the dusty backstages in which most of the action is set. Since we usually imagine these characters occupying far more pristine surroundings, the setting adds greatly to the play’s wallop.
The play’s central, ego-driven conflict is between Welles and Olivier. By 1960, Pendleton suggests, each artistic colossus was beginning to show cracks. A declining Welles (Jeff Still) is haunted by the ghost of “Citizen Kane” and his inability to raise the necessary funding for “Chimes at Midnight.” Olivier (John Judd) is dealing with the collapse of his marriage to the emotionally shaky Leigh (Lee Roy Rogers) and his rising affections for Plowright (the excellent Sarah Wellington), posited here as a no-nonsense go-getter with an agenda for Olivier.
Pendleton’s Olivier is also deeply insecure about his relationship to the “Angry Young Men” rising fast at the Royal Court. Even as the artist in him craves the new acting challenges presented, his ego clings his celebrated history of velvet jackets and Shakespeare. Both men are dealing with the conflict between artistic aims and prosaic practicalities — and coming to terms with their own decline.
Pendleton’s brightest idea was using Tynan as a go-between. Although the critic in fact had nothing to do with matching Welles and Olivier, Pendleton’s credible conceit is to imagine that Tynan persuaded the two greats to work together after chatting up Welles in a Dublin theater where “Chimes” was tanking fast.
Tynan’s motives here are partly selfish (he wants Olivier to hire him at the nascent National Theater) and partly altruistic (he thinks both men will be good for each other). Since the sickly critic also serves as the play’s primary narrator, Pendleton’s play can also speculate on the nature of the reviewer’s relationship to the artist he covers. Thanks in part to a superb performance from David Warren, it’s Tynan’s complex persona that tends to stay in the mind after the show.
Pendleton, an actor-author whose previous plays do not approach this quality, offers a fascinating trip into theater and movie history coupled with enough thematic gravitas to make for an evening of substance. There’s adequate opportunity for empathy and laughter, but also an iconographic deconstruction that feels wise, honest and somehow important. The second act needs some trimming, but otherwise the script is already in fine shape.