Movie mogul Robert Evans, the legendary film producer behind “The Godfather” and “Love Story,” forged his fortune spotting great stories. His autobiography, “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” holds a wealth of Tinseltown tales. Big personalities tinkle around it like ice in a tumbler: Brando, Kissinger, Sinatra. Simon McBurney and James Yeatman’s adaptation makes Evans the biggest of them all, even as it suggests, slyly, that his memoir might be the best yarn the movie-man ever spun. What it struggles for, however, is any weight or wider significance whatsoever.
Evans looms large over his whole life story — not just its leading man but the shadowy figure calling the shots from behind the scenes. Actor Danny Huston’s heavy silhouette splats, black on white, at the back of the stage, emitting a slow, grizzled basso purr as he recounts a life spent at Hollywood’s helm. McBurney’s adaptation, co-written and directed with Yeatman, starts by summoning Henry Kissinger, then Secretary of State, to a premiere of “The Godfather” after Marlon Brando pulled out. The sense, straight off, is of a power player capable of pulling big strings: Robert Evans, Hollywood Icon. Huston’s outline hunches over, breathing heavily. He’s an ominous presence, but a weary one too. Mostly, as befits an old movie man spinning his own story into the stuff of legend, he seems unknowable.
Played on Anna Fleischle’s bare soundstage, seven actors play out his life like a semi-staged radio drama as Evans’ story speeds by. It careers from his go-getting start, selling ladies’ pants to make a million by his mid-twenties, to the moment good looks and good luck got him his first acting role out of the blue. He only kept the role by luck too, saved by a director who stuck by him with six small words: “The kid stays in the picture.” From thereon in, Evans took control. He moved into the producer’s chair, bought up bestselling novels and surrounded himself with stars as he forced his way to influence, acclaim and riches — most of which vanished up his nose in the mid-80’s. His story plays out in a swirl of stars and a string of wives: Sharon Hugeny, Camilla Sparv, Ali McGraw — all played by Madeleine Potter.
McBurney’s theater projects (seen earlier this season on Broadway in “The Encounter”) have turned to technology in recent years — his new way of getting past the stage’s inherent shortcomings. His troupe Complicitie’s work has always reveled in surrogates and stand-ins, but where once material objects did the work, books fluttering in place of flocking birds, now it’s down to digital files. Just as audio clips summoned the Amazon in “The Encounter,” stock footage of American homes and hillsides become the backdrop here — one big game of live green-screen acting. Vocal manipulation summons Hollywood icons into the here and now — Clint Dyer’s mumbling Brando and Ajay Naidu’s twitchy Polanski among them — while personal photos bring the past to the fore, piling up as in a noirish private dick film.
All this is laced with the language of cinema. The Royal Court’s stage becomes a bare soundstage, with actors speaking into studio mics as if dubbing the story. It has the pace of a blockbuster and the jerky jump-cuts of a cutting room. The whole show functions like film: Distinct images and sounds join up in our minds, and actors act scenes together without even sharing a look. Everything’s dislocated, everyone’s isolated, nothing much is real, least of all Evans himself.
As the younger man, Christian Camargo’s suave manipulator peels away into infinity as a video camera slips into a feedback loop.
That said, McBurney never fully makes the form count, finding neither thrust nor metaphor. An uncharacteristic smattering of cheap gags betray a lack of trust in the story and, given how particular his work can be, and how many techniques he’s recycled from previous shows, it’s hard not to suspect him of phoning this in — ironic given how long Camargo’s Evans spends with a handset affixed to his right ear. Even for an industry built on the telephone, the man’s monthly bills must have been monstrous; bigger, perhaps, than the coke costs he wracked up en route to ruin. Actors and agents, virtuosos and mafiosos, all of them answer to Evans. Even the White House returns his calls pronto.
All of which explains why Evans stands center stage, but that doesn’t mean he stands for anything greater than himself. His isn’t some great, tragic downfall, the sort Lucy Prebble found in Jeffrey Skilling in “Enron,” nor, despite markers of American history, does he seem indicative of wider social structures or attitudes. Occasionally he seems the equal of his own Mafia men, calling in favors and threats to ensure Al Pacino’s availability for “The Godfather,” or else, he sits pointedly at the fulcrum between entertainment and politics. Only for a while, though. Mostly, like the vast majority of lives, his story follows neither rhyme nor reason, more circumstantial than symbolic, and after scrabbling for some deeper, richer significance, one eventually stops caring. What remains is a string of anecdotes with little interest beyond cinema buffs.