If Austin Pendleton's strong and provocative "Orson's Shadow" gets produced in England, it'll be interesting to see how the Brits react to the depiction of Laurence Olivier, the knight in shining armor of 20th-century British theater. In this play, Olivier is more ego than artist, and he has a very hard time taking direction from Orson Welles.

If Austin Pendleton’s strong and provocative “Orson’s Shadow” gets produced in England, it’ll be interesting to see how the Brits react to the depiction of Laurence Olivier, the knight in shining armor of 20th-century British theater. In this play, Olivier is more ego than artist, and he has a very hard time taking direction from a man viewed here as a greater artist, Orson Welles. “Orson’s Shadow,” inspired by the director-star pairing of Welles and Olivier in a 1960 production of “Rhinoceros,” is partly a biographical drama, but mostly a contemplation on the artistic temperament of geniuses, and a keen one at that.

The catalyst for the Welles-Olivier teaming is Kenneth Tynan, himself a towering figure, one of the most influential of theater critics and Olivier’s future partner in the National Theater. It’s that gig that Tynan is seeking by matching up Olivier with Tynan’s old friend Welles. With this in mind, Tynan (Andrew Ableson) visits Welles (Robert Machray) in Ireland, where he’s performing a stage version of “Chimes at Midnight” (his adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” plays with Falstaff at the center) to empty houses.

Welles dreams of turning the project into a film, which he hopes will finally eclipse the achievement of “Citizen Kane.” Tynan hopes it will too, if for no other reason than to stop Orson’s “relentless engagement with his past.”

The second scene has the elegant Tynan, performed ably by Ableson, convincing the master actor Olivier (Jeff Sugarman) of the directing choice. The play really takes off when Welles and Olivier begin locking horns, and the rehearsal scene that starts Act II is inspired, with Sugarman’s strong, chilly Olivier suffering over every finger movement with a perfectionist’s obsessive compulsiveness. Machray’s jovial but insecure Welles may be a perfectionist too, but one who has to struggle to remain patient and always seems tempted to walk away. In Pendleton’s vision, Olivier is the star — controlled, resilient and impossible. Welles is the artist — instinctive, self-destructive and impossible. they find themselves playing out their tendencies to a tee, one drawn toward taking over, one toward walking away; one moves toward betrayal, one toward being betrayed.

This production marks a promising beginning for the Black Dahlia Theater company. The play was initially produced by the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and has had a couple of other productions since. In this incarnation, director Matt Shakman has cast the play exceptionally well, and the production engages the intelligence of the work impressively. Mike Durst’s lighting is evocative but can be distractingly busy. Kelly Hanson’s bare set and Damian Kaner’s period costumes are very fine.

Pendleton has a lot of different layers happening here. The year 1960 is a moment of vast change — the artistic, political, and cultural ground is moving beneath Welles and Olivier’s feet. The staid dramaturgy and traditional aristocratic milieu of English theater is giving way to the new working-class voice of John Osborne, in whose “The Entertainer” Olivier has just made a big splash. Olivier feels the need to capture the zeitgeist and play the Everyman, but as Welles asks him at one provocative point, “Is Larry Olivier finally ready to disappear and join the modern age?”

Overall, Olivier comes off quite badly here, perhaps even worse than Pendleton really intended. Welles is always likable, even naive, but doomed.

Welles’ dream project remains “Chimes at Midnight,” and the Hal-Falstaff story reflects on the incidents portrayed here. Welles’ brilliance casts a giant shadow, so large that even the great Olivier feels a need to get out from under it. But the tragedy depicted in this play is really that Orson himself can’t escape his own shadow.

These characters don’t represent clear points of view — in fact, they’ve all got ulterior motives, and Pendleton amusingly reminds us at various times that, while they’re all here working on “Rhinoceros,” not a single one of them actually likes the play.

Neither “Orson’s Shadow” nor the production is perfect. If one begins to expect the artistry here to live up to its subjects, disappointment is inevitable. Pendleton’s certainly not as good a writer as Olivier was an actor or Welles a director, but by taking inspiration from the two, he’s lifted himself up rather than brought them down.

Orson's Shadow

Tiffany Theater; North Stage; 99 seats; $27.50 top

Production

A Black Dahlia Theater and the Tiffany Theaters presentation of a two-act play by Austin Pendleton, conceived by Judith Auberjonois. Producer, Steven Klein. Directed by Matt Shakman.

Creative

Set, Kelly Hanson; lighting, Mike Durst; costumes, Damian Kaner; sound, Robert Geary. Opened Aug. 10, 2001, reviewed Aug. 23. Closes Sept. 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Kenneth - Andrew Ableson Sean - Bryan Glanney Orson - Robert Machray Larry - Jeff Sugarman Joan - Corrina Lyons Vivien - Mina Dillard-Gits
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