Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight!
If smoke could be taught to dance, only Hal Holbrook could provide the choreography. When it emerges from the cigar he puffs on throughout Mark Twain Tonight!, it seems the closest thing to a representation of us on the stage of the Brooks Atkinson. As Holbrook manipulates the wisps of smoke that swirl around him and then vanish into the fly space, so is the audience nothing but his willing plaything. In the game of theatre, who could ask for anything more?
It's refreshing that, after over five decades of plying the Samuel Clemens trade, Holbrook hasn't lost his grip on the soul of the iconic American author and humorist. Decked out in an ivory-colored suit, and with the unkempt hair and mustache that are Twain trademarks, Holbrook looks the part from the instant he appears onstage. As he slowly unfurls the show, revealing by turns the mischievous and serious sides of Twain, he demonstrates something more: He still possesses the personality, wit, and good taste that have helped make this show (which he assembled and directed) so enduringly popular.
Beyond that, Holbrook proves that, 95 years after his death, Twain remains a common-sense voice in a troubled world. For Twain's writing was, intentionally or otherwise, for the ages, expressing in the unique cadence of its Missouri-born-and-bred creator an unmistakably American sensibility that, in its brash optimism and stinging observational power, resonates strongly today. If some of Twain's comments buck recent trends toward what we might term political correctness (including a number of particularly pointed - if still funny - barbs aimed at France), they're connected by Twain's underlying love his country and fellow man, qualities he sees violated far too often.
But his despair at those violations permeates - and centers - this production, or at least it did at the press performance I attended. I can't guarantee you'll see exactly (or even mostly) what I saw - Holbrook is continually refocusing the show and drawing anew from a selection of over 70 pieces of Twain's writing, making the shape of the evening different every night and utterly dependent on audiences and his relationship with them. However, so masterfully assembled was the collection of witticisms, anecdotes, and pieces of sage advice at the performance I attended that it seemed as if it had been planned long in advance.
For the two-hour show seemed structured as a commentary on the politically divided state of America today. In addition to his token wry observations about the government and the type of people it attracts ("First God made idiots; that was for practice. Then he made Congress."), he warned about the dangers of an unchecked media, the volatility of colliding concepts of religion (most notably in a brief, eerily pertinent piece about disagreements between a Christian and a Muslim), and the vital role perspective - and willingness to rethink it - plays in discourse. "Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a soul," he said, "and never will."
Holbrook delivered that line as if it were the simplest, most straightforward sentiment ever expressed. When stated so plainly and so simply, such ideas seem at their most powerful: The audience never failed to fall to utter silence during Twain's more impassioned speeches, or applaud a stinging rebuke of one political party. (Which, it must be noted, was invariably followed immediately by a similar comment about the other party.) Ordinary language, without embellishment, really can be the best way to communicate.
That ability to cut through artifice - whether of human nature or of theatre - is what most directly connects Holbrook with Twain. That, in concert with the good-natured attitude of both performer and subject, helps smooth over the production's rougher patches: Holbrook, now 80 (playing Twain at 70), occasionally steadies himself by holding onto a set piece, and loses a bit of his authority; he sometimes refers to what look like hand-written notes; and poorly implemented amplification muffles or distorts outright many of his more intricate turns of phrase. (Richard Costabile is the production supervisor.)
Ultimately, however, these concerns don't diminish the thrill of seeing this great American actor embody a great American in the highly theatrical and enjoyable way he made famous. The show runs only through June 26, and it's not exactly imprudent to consider how many more chances you might have to see Holbrook perform the show. Time for him, as for all of us, marches on.
Twain, of course, considered this, too; and it was clearly on Holbrook's mind as well. "I wonder if a person ever ceases to feel young," he asked, only half to himself, as the performance I attended drew to a close. It's a question well worth pondering, but the answer is likely already in evidence: Mark Twain Tonight! doubtlessly, on some level, keeps Holbrook young. The effect of his joyous, evocative performance on the audience would not seem all dissimilar.