Playwright Austin Pendleton, who also wears hats as actor, director and acting teacher, is clearly not a man consumed by the pressing dramas behind today’s headlines. In the cultural-history piece “Orson’s Shadow,” Pendleton reimagines the 1960 encounter between fallen Hollywood director Orson Welles and temperamental actor Laurence Olivier on a production of Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.” Pendleton may be more in tune with this particular episode than his audience; he offers a dynamically realized scenario in which eminent figures become multifaceted human beings.
Theater critic Kenneth Tynan (Tracy Letts) has a plan to save his best friend’s career, which has been suffering at the controlling hands of Hollywood since the 1941 release of “Citizen Kane.”
The play opens with Tynan coming to see Welles (Jeff Still) at the Gaiety Theater in Dublin to suggest he direct “Rhinoceros,” chosen by Olivier (John Judd) and his patient actress-girlfriend, Joan Plowright (Susan Bennett), as their next project.
After much bantering with and torturing of the mild-mannered, quick-witted Tynan over a steak dinner, Welles agrees. (Ken: “Are they all as neurotic as you, Orson? I really must know.” Orson: “Worse than me. I at least am talented.”)
The second act finds Tynan approaching the dizzyingly manipulative Olivier, who gives the poor critic — saddled not only with a speech impediment but also emphysema — an even harder time. It is only due to the gentle urging of the levelheaded Plowright that Olivier hears him out.
Finally, the third act sets us in rehearsal at London’s Royal Court Theater, where the characters and the action are at their most chaotic and entertaining. Olivier, more belligerent now than ever, gives Welles a terrible time as the latter tries to direct him in the absurdist fascist allegory, in which all the characters but his turn into the titular one-horned beast.
Pendleton highlights not only the major dynamics between characters but also the minor ones. Welles’ eager and obedient assistant, Sean (Ian Westerfer), is used as a whipping boy to dilute the intensity of the dramatics between the powerful creative forces around him. His character brings in a sweet naivete for the rest of the jaded, dry-humored gang to play off.
The most poorly drawn of the characters, Olivier’s ailing wife Vivien Leigh (Lee Roy Rogers) appears most successfully in the final act, where her much-discussed volatility is heaped upon Welles and the helpless, star-struck Sean.
Plowright also develops a nice rapport with both Tynan and Welles as she seeks to mediate their dealings with Olivier. The playwright mercifully declines to make his audience piece together parceled-out information; instead, he lays out all the necessary details upfront. He also knows that what gives dialogue its fluency is specificity as well as conversational bits that may seem extraneous on the page but become vital onstage.
The richness of the script would come to naught if it weren’t for the topnotch acting, which remains very much the focus of director David Cromer’s straightforward staging on designer Takeshi Kata’s spare settings.
Susan Bennett, nailing a charming British lilt, captures Plowright with a self-possessed ease that creates the perfect counterpoint to Rogers’ Leigh.
It is harder to know what Plowright sees in Olivier, essentially a grown man who behaves with the relentless entitlement of a spoiled first-born son. Still, Judd manages to balance Larry, making him sympathetic in his negotiations with the two women in his life; he offers kindness and support to his unpredictable wife while always deferring to Joan’s sound reasoning and advice.
Letts delivers the required understated perf as the narrator, Ken, who cowers at any sign of conflict and whose main objective is to keep the peace.
The commanding Still plays Welles with blazing charisma and irreverence, which shines most brightly in the final act in a speech where he leaves his mark on both the characters and the audience in telling off the uncooperative Olivier during rehearsal.