It’s hard to distinguish the lines separating Hal Holbrook from Mark Twain, the great American humorist he’s been interpreting for a half-century. The actor was barely 30 when he first adopted the ecru suit, cigar and handlebar mustache to play the pseudonymously known Samuel Clemens at age 70, appearing in the lecture-format show “Mark Twain Tonight!” Returning for three weeks to Broadway for the first time since 1977, Holbrook has now overtaken his subject in age. But this venerable theatrical institution has become sadly institutional itself, a show admirable for its erudition and committed performance but otherwise quaint and unengaging.
Inevitably for a theater piece culled randomly and spontaneously each night from 16 hours of mentally archived material, Holbrook’s show is a crapshoot bound to yield more on some occasions than others. With just one perf under his belt in this engagement before New York press were invited, the octogenarian delivered a somewhat stale show that belabored its contemporary relevance, airing Twain’s ruminations on politics, religion and the decline of the human intellect but revealing too little about the man himself.
The famous folksy raconteur certainly comes to life, and there’s no denying Holbrook’s thorough immersion in the crusty character, as unapologetic about his high self-regard as he is about his generally disparaging view of the society he lived in. How little that society has changed over the last hundred years in terms of what rankles so many liberal-minded Americans — Congress, the press, religious zealotry — is an unspoken theme Holbrook now leans on to platitudinous and repetitive extremes.
Considering the acerbic wit that still sparkles in Twain’s words, the laughs generated by some of his less nuanced political barbs seem rather easy in the age of Bill Maher and Jon Stewart: “All Republicans are insane and not one of them knows it. Same with the Democrats. All Democrats are insane, but only the Republicans can perceive it.” And the seemingly endless capacity to coax hearty yocks by trashing the French becomes tiresome indeed.
But the big problem here is arguably one of concept. Holbrook virtually forged the mold for solo shows about dead writers, but the prototype has since spawned countless, often more theatrically ambitious variations — on Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Truman Capote, Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas and Djuna Barnes, just to pluck from recent memory.
Abused and overexposed as it is, the solo show format has been frequently invigorated by dynamic staging ideas, audacious textual approaches or imaginative lighting and design work. The bare-bones educational tack of Holbrook’s recital, strolling between a lectern and a table on an undressed, generically lit stage, feels as physically inert as it is academically versed and mentally agile. Bringing in a director to brush the dust off the piece might have been wise.
The perf becomes more emotionally involving when Holbrook interprets the passage from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in which Huck faces the dilemma over whether to turn in runaway slave Jim to the river men. The actor scratches out some poignancy late in the show with his dexterous impersonations of multiple characters from the scene. But, returning to the writer’s persona, what appears initially to be a reflection on Twain’s own attitudes to slavery slips back instead into theological debate, retreading ground covered earlier.
Holbrook’s instincts might once have been sharper about intuiting what material a particular audience will respond to at any given perf; the palpable disconnect registered during an interminable blue jay story here felt especially awkward.
What the show lacks, at least on press night, is a more liberal sprinkling of anecdotes like one about the response from his prospective father-in-law to a list of appalling references when Clemens asked for Olivia Langdon’s hand in marriage. In focusing on the pessimism that characterized the writer late in life as he sermonizes about petrified thought and mutilated morals, Holbrook underserves the personal side that might have made this scholarly standup more entertaining.