What becomes a legend most, embracing imperfections or hiding them from the world? In his play Orson's Shadow, Austin Pendleton attempts to discern this, to ascertain whether great stars are just like everyone else, or if they truly are more prone to fits of pique, jealousy, or even success. And in the production now at the Barrow Street Theatre, the result is a penetrating and often hilarious clash of theatrical titans.
In braving the fierce fires burning at the heart of celebrity, Pendleton devotes his play to not only the human frailties that bind us together, but the greatness that sets certain people apart. After all, what's so special about a washed-up, egomaniacal director? Or a self-obsessed, possessive Star-with-a-capital-S who's cheating on his mentally ill wife with a young, possibly gold-digging actress? Or a meddling critic, so positive of his own powers of persuasion that he brings everyone together only to watch in horror as their personal and professional lives implode?
Yet assigning certain names to these people changes the dynamic and forces to you look beneath the somewhat conventional surface. The director is Orson Welles. The actor is Laurence Olivier. His wife is Vivien Leigh, and his mistress Joan Plowright. The critic is Kenneth Tynan. And though these people are all experienced, gifted adults, their inability to keep their adolescent natures in check turns them into the theatrical equivalents of gladiatorial combatants, who are unlikely to be satisfied until no one is left standing.
Pendleton renders that struggle in vivid dramatic strokes; with frequent allusions to Shakespeare (particularly Macbeth and Henry IV), he gives additional dramatic gravity to every childish emotion, every bruised ego, and every instance of shattered pride that prevents these five people from working together on the 1960 London premiere of Rhinoceros. But the symbolic absurdities of Ionesco's anti-Fascism play pale in comparison to the surreal interactions between the five of them. They're facing no less certain destruction in their way of life than are the characters in Ionesco's play: The worlds of art and entertainment are undergoing irrevocable change.
Orson (Jeff Still) is trapped doing a second-rate production of the Shakespeare adaptation that will eventually become the film Chimes at Midnight; he feels his career was destroyed by Olivier (here called Larry, and played by John Judd), whom Tynan (Tracy Letts) now wants Orson to direct in Rhinoceros. But while Larry's acting style may or may not be going out of fashion, it's utterly incompatible with Welles's more modern approaches. To make matters worse, Larry's relationship with Vivien (Lee Roy Rogers) has so degraded that he's now taken up with Joan (Susan Bennett), his costar in Rhinoceros and the only one still retaining a shred of idealism.
We feel, as she does, trapped among giants incapable of seeing past their own egos to put their world-class talents together for a common good. "What would you do if you were in love with someone with the Plague," Larry asks at one point. "Would you allow yourself to catch it?" The true core of Orson's Shadow is how everyone answers that question, and the contrast Pendleton details between how they deal with it in both their professional and private lives is what elevates a potentially sketchy concept to the realm of compelling theatre.
Not that this is one of the best backstagers in theatrical history. It's not self-contained enough; Pendleton relies too heavily on the audience's foreknowledge of the personalities involved and doesn't truly assemble complete characters from scratch. That makes everyone just a bit too blurry around the edges, and often forces the dialogue to devolve into name-dropping. But his manipulation of audience expectations nonetheless results in some sharply written characters.
They're sharply performed here, with Letts - whose harrowing play Bug recently vacated the Barrow Street - a particular standout as the stammering and ailing Tynan. Only Rogers even mildly disappoints; she's never able to satisfactorily evoke Vivien's faded luminescence, and thus isn't entirely believable as the broken star of Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire. Even so, under David Cromer's unrelenting direction, she and the others shine as jewels losing their brilliance all too suddenly.
This idea is amplified by Takeshi Kata's foreboding theater set, which, as piercingly lit by Tyler Micoleau, is as much a place for the creation of enlivening magic as a prison where hopes serve out life sentences. But it's hard for hope, even so contained, to die completely, and Pendleton intelligently and creatively reminds us that the larger-than-life figures he's represented in Orson's Shadow were, above all, people, even if they were forever reaching for the stars while hopelessly mired on Earth.