Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Chaplin and Keaton on the Set of Limelight
The Pear Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Murder on the Orient Express

Lorie Goulart, David Boyll, and David Scott
Photo by Argun Tekant
One was known worldwide for his bamboo cane, derby hat, toothbrush mustache, too-small black jacket, and a walk more like a penguin than a man. The other's big screen image familiar to all was a clean-shaven face smothered in thick, white makeup, a deadpan expression with no smile, baggy pants, and a tiny, felt, pork pie hat. One combined slapstick and pathos as his Tramp struggled hilariously against adversity; the other performed daredevil stunts that left audiences wide-eyed between their tears of laughter as he walked away unscathed.

Two of the greatest, most-beloved film comics ever had never worked together until in 1952, Charlie Chaplin invited Buster Keaton to join him in a couple of scenes of what was to be Chaplin's last American-made movie, Limelight. In his new play Chaplin and Keaton on the Set of Limelight, Greg Lam imagines what might have transpired in the dressing room between the two silent-movie giants as they meet for the first time in fifteen years, reminisce fondly about the days before talkies, and argue vehemently about their opposing philosophies of the purpose and value of movies. The Pear Theatre's two-hour (with intermission) production is a fascinating, educating, and highly entertaining world premiere in which funny and thought-provoking walk hand in hand and the performances of the two leads are nothing short of striking.

After the talkies led to the demise of the silents, Charles Chaplin continued to write, produce, direct, score and star in his own movies, with each starting to take more and more years to conceive and actualize. At the same time, he was not shy with his own views about the injustices of the world. He even tried–unsuccessfully, unfortunately–to use his 1940 movie The Great Dictator to warn the world about the rise of Hitler. By 1952, he, like so many other Hollywood greats, was under great suspicion by Joseph McCarthy and an increasingly hostile press, especially since the English-born Chaplin had never become an American citizen and was rumored to be Jewish (which he never denied but definitely was not). Facing probable deportation, he viewed Limelight as his farewell movie–one he meant to be his greatest ever.

The interim years after the silents had been quite different for Keaton. Bad judgments about contracts where he had no control of his career led to drinking problems. However, he still found ways to share both his stunt and his comedic talents through the circus arena and increasingly through the upstart threat to movies, television. His fame had definitely faded a bit by the time his old friend Chaplin asked him to be in his latest movie, with Buster hoping this could be the beginning of a new collaboration to revive their comic antics of old.

In this show, we see that by 1952, Chaplin and Keaton have wildly different views about moviemaking and what audiences want versus need. Buster firmly believed movies are solely to be "entertaining," with laughter to be the goal of gags galore. Charlie sees filmmaking as "important," with "laughter not enough these days." In the post-Hitler/Holocaust world now in the midst of a Cold War and so many like himself suspected to be Communists, Chaplin asserts, "There is a battle for the soul of this world that has to come first [in moviemaking], before art or laughter."

Greg Lam's brilliant and often innovative script highlights these two opposing views while also leaving plenty of space for laugh-out-loud comedy as well as wonderful, live and film glimpses of the silent-movie stardom of both men.

From the moment he walks into the dressing room, David Scott knocks it out of the ballpark in his portrayal of the sixty-something Chaplin. The first thing noticed are perfectly round eyes that pop and sparkle with volumes of expression–bulging eyes like one remembers from silent screen close-ups. Every move he makes is dramatically exaggerated, often purposefully tongue-in-cheek by a man who does not care that this is only a dressing room and treats it just as he would a screen set. With a voice that vibrantly swings an octave or two in the matter of a sentence and that rolls in hills and valleys with an effect a bit effeminate when combined with hand movements that flit and flutter, this Charlie Chaplin is no longer just The Tramp, but has matured into an actor/man whose personality overflows with charisma.

But this Charles of 1952 also has his serious and stubborn side, especially when it comes to his priority of message-making over just comedy in his final venture into filmmaking. Gingerly but firmly he reminds Keaton who is in charge of his masterpiece when Buster makes suggestions on how to heighten the humor for his cameo moment. Humor is definitely to take a backseat in Chaplin's vision. With great passion he warns Keaton against the "fear mongering, public aggrandizement" currently occurring in the U.S. for which he asserts, "America will be the worse place for it"–clearly an inclusion Greg Lam inserts to ensure this play about the 1950s is also timely and relevant for 2024.

Even with several slight stumbles of his lines on opening night, David Boyll is also overall impressive and memorable as Buster Keaton. Our first and lingering impression of his Keaton is a mouth that remains for long stretches of time a stationary, straight line across his expressionless face, giving proof of why Keaton's trademark face led to his nickname as "The Great Stone Face." At the same time, his Buster is full of twinkle and life and has innumerable ways of drawing our laughs just by being in our presence, much like his screen character of old. He particularly loosens up when around Chaplin's fast-paced, rapid-speaking assistant, Beverly, played by Laurie Goulart with her own immense array of subtle glances and telling expressions to draw many, well-deserved laughs from the appreciative audience.

In and out of the dressing room also come Claire Bloom–the co-star and tragic heroine of Charlie's film–and his latest-of-four wives, Oona. Both are barely out of their teens, dashing in looks, with airs of dignity and elegance. Both are also ably played by the same actress, Selin Sahbazoglu, leading to a riotous scene when Keaton mistakes wife for actress and decides to unload his pent-up, not-too-complimentary thoughts about the great Charles Chaplin.

As the two comic giants remember what it was like to be on the movie sets of the twenties or as they recall favorite scenes and moments, their famed characters often appear (unseen by them) and play out silently what they are describing. Johnny Villar and Anthony Castillon are each the live epitome of The Tramp and Stone Face, respectively, delighting us with the antics, expressions, and movements that made both Charlie and Buster world renown. Joining them in scenes that mirror those once seen on the big black-and-white screen is Skylar Rose Adams as "The Girl," playing the innocent set-up and foil to their schemes just as so many such starlets did in movie after movie a century ago.

Sinohui Hinojosa masterfully directs scenes of the present and the yesteryear that run in parallel and jump back and forth between real-time and imaginary. Pacing throughout is kept taut and exacting, and the director finds many ways to seamlessly blend both the humor and the serious playing out before us. With sputtering, silent, black-and-white projections playing intermittently on a background screen (all also designed by the production's director), we are reminded constantly of the silent film era that birthed these two great stars.

Louis Stone Collonge's set design of the dressing room plays well to each of the three sides of the audience with two dressing tables for the stars, a costume-readying area, and an upright piano ready for a quick plunking of a tune like those once heard underscoring a silent film. Sinjin Jones's lighting and sound designs complement and enhance the scenic and mood shifts of the evening, while Melissa Wilson's costume creations do great justice to our memories of Chaplin and Keaton on the screen and give a realistic sense to real-time moviemaking by these two in the early 1950s.

How lucky is the San Francisco Bay Area to be home to such talent as playwright Greg Lam as well as to The Pear Theatre. Together, they have combined vision and efforts to premiere an enlightening and captivating look at a short moment in film history with telling insights into two greats of yesteryear as well as such important parallels to our own era of uneasy times. That the role of art-making can be both to elicit hearty laughter and to engender serious introspection is well proved by Chaplin and Keaton on the Set of Limelight, a new play that much deserves a full audience each night of its run.

Chaplin and Keaton on the Set of Limelight runs through July 21, 2024, at The Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, please visit