×

Orson’s Shadow

If Austin Pendleton's strong and provocative "Orson's Shadow" gets produced in England, it'll be interesting to see how the Brits react to the depiction of Laurence Olivier, the knight in shining armor of 20th-century British theater. In this play, Olivier is more ego than artist, and he has a very hard time taking direction from Orson Welles.

With:
Kenneth - Andrew Ableson Sean - Bryan Glanney Orson - Robert Machray Larry - Jeff Sugarman Joan - Corrina Lyons Vivien - Mina Dillard-Gits

If Austin Pendleton’s strong and provocative “Orson’s Shadow” gets produced in England, it’ll be interesting to see how the Brits react to the depiction of Laurence Olivier, the knight in shining armor of 20th-century British theater. In this play, Olivier is more ego than artist, and he has a very hard time taking direction from a man viewed here as a greater artist, Orson Welles. “Orson’s Shadow,” inspired by the director-star pairing of Welles and Olivier in a 1960 production of “Rhinoceros,” is partly a biographical drama, but mostly a contemplation on the artistic temperament of geniuses, and a keen one at that.

The catalyst for the Welles-Olivier teaming is Kenneth Tynan, himself a towering figure, one of the most influential of theater critics and Olivier’s future partner in the National Theater. It’s that gig that Tynan is seeking by matching up Olivier with Tynan’s old friend Welles. With this in mind, Tynan (Andrew Ableson) visits Welles (Robert Machray) in Ireland, where he’s performing a stage version of “Chimes at Midnight” (his adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” plays with Falstaff at the center) to empty houses.

Welles dreams of turning the project into a film, which he hopes will finally eclipse the achievement of “Citizen Kane.” Tynan hopes it will too, if for no other reason than to stop Orson’s “relentless engagement with his past.”

The second scene has the elegant Tynan, performed ably by Ableson, convincing the master actor Olivier (Jeff Sugarman) of the directing choice. The play really takes off when Welles and Olivier begin locking horns, and the rehearsal scene that starts Act II is inspired, with Sugarman’s strong, chilly Olivier suffering over every finger movement with a perfectionist’s obsessive compulsiveness. Machray’s jovial but insecure Welles may be a perfectionist too, but one who has to struggle to remain patient and always seems tempted to walk away. In Pendleton’s vision, Olivier is the star — controlled, resilient and impossible. Welles is the artist — instinctive, self-destructive and impossible. they find themselves playing out their tendencies to a tee, one drawn toward taking over, one toward walking away; one moves toward betrayal, one toward being betrayed.

This production marks a promising beginning for the Black Dahlia Theater company. The play was initially produced by the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and has had a couple of other productions since. In this incarnation, director Matt Shakman has cast the play exceptionally well, and the production engages the intelligence of the work impressively. Mike Durst’s lighting is evocative but can be distractingly busy. Kelly Hanson’s bare set and Damian Kaner’s period costumes are very fine.

Pendleton has a lot of different layers happening here. The year 1960 is a moment of vast change — the artistic, political, and cultural ground is moving beneath Welles and Olivier’s feet. The staid dramaturgy and traditional aristocratic milieu of English theater is giving way to the new working-class voice of John Osborne, in whose “The Entertainer” Olivier has just made a big splash. Olivier feels the need to capture the zeitgeist and play the Everyman, but as Welles asks him at one provocative point, “Is Larry Olivier finally ready to disappear and join the modern age?”

Overall, Olivier comes off quite badly here, perhaps even worse than Pendleton really intended. Welles is always likable, even naive, but doomed.

Welles’ dream project remains “Chimes at Midnight,” and the Hal-Falstaff story reflects on the incidents portrayed here. Welles’ brilliance casts a giant shadow, so large that even the great Olivier feels a need to get out from under it. But the tragedy depicted in this play is really that Orson himself can’t escape his own shadow.

These characters don’t represent clear points of view — in fact, they’ve all got ulterior motives, and Pendleton amusingly reminds us at various times that, while they’re all here working on “Rhinoceros,” not a single one of them actually likes the play.

Neither “Orson’s Shadow” nor the production is perfect. If one begins to expect the artistry here to live up to its subjects, disappointment is inevitable. Pendleton’s certainly not as good a writer as Olivier was an actor or Welles a director, but by taking inspiration from the two, he’s lifted himself up rather than brought them down.

Orson's Shadow

Tiffany Theater; North Stage; 99 seats; $27.50 top

Production: A Black Dahlia Theater and the Tiffany Theaters presentation of a two-act play by Austin Pendleton, conceived by Judith Auberjonois. Producer, Steven Klein. Directed by Matt Shakman.

Creative: Set, Kelly Hanson; lighting, Mike Durst; costumes, Damian Kaner; sound, Robert Geary. Opened Aug. 10, 2001, reviewed Aug. 23. Closes Sept. 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast: Kenneth - Andrew Ableson Sean - Bryan Glanney Orson - Robert Machray Larry - Jeff Sugarman Joan - Corrina Lyons Vivien - Mina Dillard-Gits

More Legit

  • Hugh Jackman'To Kill a Mockingbird' Broadway

    'To Kill a Mockingbird's' Starry Opening: Oprah, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and More

    The Shubert Theatre in New York City last was filled on Thursday night with Oscar winners, media titans, and, of course, Broadway legends who came out for the opening of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The starry guest list included Oprah Winfrey, Barry Diller, “Les Misérables” co-stars Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Gayle King, [...]

  • Pat Gelbart Obit Dead

    Actress Pat Gelbart, Wife of 'MASH' Creator, Dies at 94

    Pat Gelbart, widow of late “MASH” creator Larry Gelbart, died surrounded by family at her home in Westwood, Calif. on Dec. 11. She was 94. Gelbart was born in Minneapolis, Minn. in 1928 as Marriam Patricia Murphy. When she met her husband, Gelbart was an actress, known for the 1947 musical “Good News,” in which [...]

  • To Kill a Mockingbird review

    Broadway Review: 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

    Against all odds, writer Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher have succeeded in crafting a stage-worthy adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic American novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The ever-likable Daniels, whose casting was genius, gives a strong and searching performance as Atticus Finch, the small-town Southern lawyer who epitomizes the ideal human qualities of goodness, [...]

  • Isabelle HuppertIsabelle Huppert Life Achievement Award,

    Isabelle Huppert, Chris Noth to Appear on Stage in 'The Mother'

    Isabelle Huppert will appear opposite Chris Noth in the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “The Mother.” It marks the U.S. premiere of the show. “The Mother” was written by French playwright Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton. Huppert, an icon of European film, was Oscar-nominated for “Elle” and appears in the upcoming Focus Features [...]

  • Could Anyone Follow ‘Springsteen on Broadway’?

    Could Anyone Follow 'Springsteen on Broadway'? Here Are Five Things They'd Need (Guest Column)

    After 235-odd shows, with grosses in excess of $100 million, a Special Tony Award and a hotly anticipated Netflix special debuting Sunday, “Springsteen on Broadway” is an unprecedented Broadway blockbuster. As with any success in entertainment, the rush to replicate The Boss’ one-man show reportedly is under way, with a consortium led by Live Nation, CAA [...]

  • Clueless review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Clueless' the Musical

    How does a musical stage adaptation of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film comedy of oblivious privileged teens, “Clueless,” play in the era of female empowerment and millennial engagement? True, the principal skills of lead teen Cher Horowitz are the superficial ones of mall shopping and makeovers. But her sweet spirit and independence, plus some added P.C. relevance, [...]

  • Ley Line Unveils Brian Wilson Documentary,

    Ley Line Unveils Brian Wilson Documentary, 'Hugo Cabret' Musical

    Producers Tim Headington and Theresa Steele Page have unveiled Ley Line Entertainment with a Brian Wilson documentary and a “Hugo Cabret” musical in the works. Ley Line said it’s a content development, production, and financing company with projects spanning film, television, stage, and music. Headington financed and produced “The Young Victoria,” “Argo,” “Hugo,” and “World [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content