Orson's Shadow is a play that has a lot going for it. It's about the struggle to create art amid personal turmoil; it's about the conflict between different types of artists; it's even got some juicy gossip about legendary movie stars. And it's got some very witty and intelligent dialogue, courtesy of playwright Austin Pendleton.
Unfortunately, it's also got its share of clunkers, and it's filled with characters who overstay their welcomes and scenes that go on way too long. The play is enticing because of the glamorous characters it portrays, and it invites us to get to know them a little better; yet in the end, Philadelphia Theatre Company's production of Orson's Shadow is distancing and disappointing.
It's 1960, and Orson Welles has been hired to direct Laurence Olivier in a London production of Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros. Welles has a lot to prove with this production: it's been nearly twenty years since he became a legend, thanks to Citizen Kane, but his demanding perfectionism has made him a pariah in Hollywood. Olivier, meanwhile, wants to prove that he's more than just the world's greatest classical actor; he wants to show that he can handle edgy, modern works like Ionesco's. He is also struggling to make a clean break from his tormented wife, Vivien Leigh, and create a new life with his lover (and Rhinoceros leading lady) Joan Plowright. Critic Kenneth Tynan is on hand, too, to assist Welles with the production.
Orson's Shadow is at its best when it discusses the creative process, a subject that Pendleton the artist has clearly thought about a lot. But, while there are lots of clever lines ("You have a brilliant mind," Welles tells Tynan, "but it contains no actual information"), there are also lines that are embarrassingly awkward ("Why did they have to give me Scarlett?" an anguished Leigh says to no one in particular).
That reference to Leigh's iconic role in Gone With the Wind is an example of the clumsy exposition that fills up this play. Pendleton actually calls attention to this in the amusing opening scene, which features Tynan breaking down the fourth wall to parody the overly obvious exposition of drawing room comedies - but Orson's Shadow is just as guilty of this as the shows it ridicules. There's also some relentless and tiresome foreshadowing - we repeatedly see Leigh smoke and Tynan cough, just to remind us that each died at 53 (she of tuberculosis, he of emphysema). And while Leigh's presence is necessary, her scenes drag on and on, making one wonder why Olivier put up with her "mania" (as she calls it) for so long.
Still, the characterizations are well-rounded and convincing, and all are superbly acted. Playing well-known, recognizable figures can be a tricky proposition; the actors of Orson's Shadow generally steer clear of direct imitation - except for Brent Harris, whose Olivier is startlingly close to the real thing. More importantly, though, he beautifully depicts Olivier's human side, as the great star struggles to keep up a proper façade while he's crumbling inside. Also excellent are are Wilbur Edwin Henry (as the seemingly straightforward Welles), Susan Wilder (as a high-strung Leigh), Rachel Botchan (who portrays Plowright as a pleasant but determined peacemaker) and Joe Hickey (whose Tynan is a jittery bundle of nerves). Director James J. Christy doesn't rush things, allowing the audience the time to savor every bon mot.
There's one other character in Orson's Shadow: Sean, Welles' assistant, played with lots of charm (and a convincing Irish brogue) by Derick Loafmann. Sean is the one fictional character here, and also the most underwritten role. Late in the play, Sean arrives at an epiphany, but there's no dialogue to tell us how Sean feels; instead, we learn all we need to know from the devastated look on Loafmann's face. It's a great moment, but its impact is more a testament to Loafmann's acting and Christy's direction than Pendleton's script.
In the final scene, we learn what happened to all of these people after 1960, and how the events depicted in Orson's Shadow affected their lives. The answer: not much. Despite the talent of the actors and the ambitions of the playwright, Orson's Shadow won't affect you as much as it wants to, either.
Orson's Shadow runs through Sunday, June 3, 2007 at Plays & Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Street. Ticket prices range from $33 to $51, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the PTC Box Office at 215-985-0420, online at www.phillytheatreco.com, or by visiting the box office.
(Note: Orson's Shadow is Philadelphia Theatre Company's final production at Plays & Players Theater, its home for the past 25 years. This fall, PTC will move to less cramped quarters at the luxurious new Suzanne Roberts Theatre on the Avenue of the Arts.)