Solo shows have grown more widespread and sophisticated in recent decades, painting complex multicharacter portraits, autobiographical narratives, even all of the first “Star Wars” trilogy in an hour. Roger Rees’ “What You Will,” however, is a throwback to an older brand of solo evening — the kind in which a thesp of note regales us with a hors d’ouevres tray of anecdotes, theatrical trivia, bigger-name dropping, and a soliloquy — or six — delivered in requisite plummy tones. These days, though, such theatrical snacking registers less as tasty than as empty calories.
A familiar face if not exactly household name — his serial mentions of onetime classmate Sir Ben Kingsley’s more stellar career on opening night suggested possible resentment masquerading as good humor — Welshman Rees has made his mark over the last four decades, more than two spent with the RSC, where he had a great success playing Nicholas Nickleby as well as numerous Shakespearean roles.
Since moving to the U.S. 20 years ago, he’s racked up a myriad of supporting film and more prominent small-screen credits (including recurring roles on “The West Wing” and “Cheers”) in addition to more stage work, notably a recently-ended stint as Williamstown’s artistic director.
But apart from scattershot references to these and other high-profile gigs, “What You Will” doesn’t really chart his career course. Nor does it provide insight into his offstage life. Instead, it offers a miscellany of jokes, patter, recitations and historical factoids.
Most of this orbits around the Bard, though a couple excerpts from Dickens are deployed as well. Yet the evening never really lands anywhere — its main purpose, perhaps, is to give us that same thrill as having a celebrity dinner guest conversationally “perform” for our guests.
Rees works hard to ingratiate. Almost too hard, as if overcompensating for the fact that there’s precious little substance here: Certainly no analysis of what makes Shakespeare’s language tick, or of his own methodologies as an actor.
He’s no doubt been fine in some of the great roles touched upon here. But plunging into rushed passages from “Hamlet,” “King Lear” or “Macbeth,” he comes off as show-offy in a stereotypical commanding voice, broad-gestures fashion. He’s wonderfully fit at age 64, yet when he adopts cliche youthful expressions and body language for Romeo or Henry V, it’s more silly than persuasive. Arguably his best turn here is as Juliet’s nurse, a part that accommodates crowd-pleasing ham.
What comes between these overemphatic yet generic turns is pretty much fluff — humorous quotes about Shakespeare, eye blink anecdotes about legends like Laurence Olivier and Noel Coward, even a limerick.
It’s all mildly amusing at best, even if on opening night much of the audience seemed eager to find it as delightful as Rees evidently believes it is.
Originally, it appeared that the feeblest material was his quoting Internet bloggers and student papers so we could laugh at the undereducated’s failure to grasp the Bard’s greatness. But then, Rees came out for an encore and recited the Hokey Pokey “as if written by Shakespeare.”
Strangely, on the night reviewed Rees made a very late play for sympathy by sharing about growing up with a semi-absent father — a lone personal insight that came off as simply incongruous.
Evidently self-directed show is purportedly semi-improvised each night, so one can hope it’s flexible enough to bulk up a bit as the run goes on. Physical presentation is modest, with the set consisting of a few furniture pieces, props and costume bits of which Rees makes just limited use.