“Lust for Life” isn’t just Kirk Douglas’ favorite pic. It’s also his defining trait, based on his charmingly discursive memoir “Before I Forget.” Show, unveiled at his eponymous Culver City playhouse, is Douglas’ stroll down Memory Lane and touches upon all his prodigious appetites — for film roles, spirituality, extreme experiences and (of course) women — locating their root cause in a lifelong search for his immigrant father’s always-withheld approval.
Douglas’ insights may not be deep, but they’re pithy, witty and heartfelt. As he saunters in, one is surprised not by the stage veteran’s assurance but by his ease, a far cry from the tightly-coiled spring characteristic of most of his 87 film roles.
Of all the home movies, interviews and photos projected on the upstage screen, we see very little of Douglas actually acting; it’s as if helmer Jeff Kanew recognized how odd the extravagant emotionality of Spartacus or Van Gogh can seem when reduced to brief clips.
Thesp’s relaxed manner isn’t the result of age or physical impairment remaining from his 1995 stroke: His speech is readily understandable, especially when accompanied by the vigorous gestures of a much younger man. Rather, he seems finally comfortable in his own skin — which, as it happens, is the evening’s principal theme.
Like a garrulous grandpa intent on telling his chronological history but given to tossing in random tidbits “before I forget,” Douglas pieces together an explanation of how Issur Danielovitch, only son of impoverished Russian immigrants Jacob and Bryna, muscled his way into international stardom, with acknowledgment of the prices paid thereby.
The stories will be familiar to readers of his bestselling “The Ragman’s Son” and “My Stroke of Luck,” but they take on rare sweetness as he narrates the death of beloved dray horse Bill in a barn fire set by anti-Semites, or Bryna’s explanation of how he was born, found in a gold box lowered from Heaven. (“What happened to the box?” exclaims the irked youth, looking out for the main chance.)
Most memorable are the moments of uncensored candor. The wounds of a hard-drinking, hard-nosed father, to whom his celebrity son was invisible, are as raw as yesterday.
Equally raw is the pause son Michael takes in a home movie clip when Kirk asks, “Was I a good father?” The star replies, “Ultimately.” Other clips of Michael — and his three other sons — suggest that time heals all wounds.
Douglas is forthright on personal disappointments (one failed marriage; difficulties with sons from two marriages), and heartbreakingly open about the 2004 drug-related death of youngest son Eric, commemorated by a clip of dad at the gravesite, tenderly speaking to the lad he looks forward to greeting in the next world.
Yet he bounces back before our eyes, as he bounced back from a 1991 ‘copter crash and the stroke four years later. Thesp has wisdom to offer, notably the advice to seek serenity in the search for God all around us, but the most inspiration of all comes from his sheer presence: A third of the way to age 93, he’s still curious, still feisty and ready to take on all comers.
Designer Elisabeth A. Scott provides comfy chairs left and right for when the man needs to rest. But on stage, as in his films and life story, Kirk Douglas never stays put for very long.