In Gary Socol’s artificial new play “The Shadow of Greatness,” Richard Chamberlain portrays Alan Perry, a well-known playwright whose last two plays have been “unmitigated flops.” He’s also had writer’s block for 10 years, ever since Miranda, the woman he loved, died in a car crash while driving to New Haven, Conn., to attend one of his openings.
The play’s premise has Perry inviting three rabid fans to his brownstone in New York’s Beekman Place, ostensibly in order to gain inspiration from them. He hopes to base characters in his new play on his assembled guests, a fair exchange since they have taken inspiration for their lives from his old plays. It’s a conceit that strains credulity.
As the apparent raison d’etre of the production, Chamberlain delivers a suave, laid-back performance in the first act, commanding the stage as a star should. But when he’s called upon to reveal Perry’s pain and depths in act two, both play and actor become increasingly ersatz until his characterization is so studied and lacking in spontaneity that the play loses any sense of reality it might have had.
The first of Perry’s visitors is gushing young actress Elle (Kellie Overbey — overboard). Before she knows where she is, Perry has made a pass at her and placed her in a straitjacket used by a character in one of his plays. Later he admits that over the intervening 10 years he’s invited a stream of female fans to his home and bedded them. There’s something threatening about Perry, even kinky, and it soon becomes clear that “The Shadow of Greatness” is a mind-games play as he sets out to teach his fans a lesson.
The second fan is an older woman, Roxanne (Jan Maxwell, who, on the whole, has the best moments of the production). She’s a reformed alcoholic who quite honestly admits that she came to Perry’s house expecting to “fuck.” The third is Scott (a seemingly too young Ross Gibby), a bouncy beginner playwright who is gay.
Perry goes on to tell the adoring trio of a fourth fan he was going to invite but couldn’t because the fan committed suicide, “just like Jack” in one of his plays. Later, it’s suggested that this story may be fiction. Reality and illusion fight it out, and before long, the fans are thoroughly disillusioned and Elle has attempted suicide.
By this point, unfortunately, the play has become more than a little self-conscious, an altogether tough chore for its cast and director Martin Rabbett (though the cast might have benefited from stronger direction). Rabbett and Chamberlain have been involved in a number of previous productions together, including telefilms and stage revivals of “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music.” “The Shadow of Greatness” is not one of their happier collaborations.