All warm and fuzzy Theodore Cleaver and Ozzie and Harriet nostalgia aside, the 1950s was arguably the most exciting decade in the history of theater. In Europe, the absurdist works of Beckett, Genet and Ionesco demolished the concept of the well-made play. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, American giants such as Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were at their peak; and schools of acting based on in-the-moment-emotion, such as the so-called Method, rather than ossified technique, had already launched the careers of protean actors Marlon Brando and James Dean and would soon graduate Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino.
But there were still a couple of dinosaurs prowling the stages of America and Europe: Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. And an actual 1960 theatrical collaboration between those two is at the heart of Austin Pendleton's fascinating, if flawed, 2000 play, Orson's Shadow.
Olivier, 53 at the time, was a colossus. Already knighted, he'd conquered both film and stage and was considering forming a national theater in England. Welles, only 45, was a very tired 45. Twenty years past his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, the enfant terrible had turned into a Hollywood pariah. Though considered a genius, he couldn't get his own films made; in desperation, he returned to the medium where he began—the theater—and wrote his Falstaff-as-tragic-hero vehicle Chimes At Midnight in hopes of finding financing to turn it into a film. But the play proved a disaster, playing to mostly empty houses in Dublin.
That's where Orson's Shadow begins. The third of the four legendary personalities on hand, the illustrious theater critic and Welles pal Kenneth Tynan, solicits him to direct Ionesco's play about the dangers of fascism, Rhinoceros, and tells Welles he can get Olivier to star in it. Welles and Olivier, though respecting each other's talent, have their own tangled history, mostly involving yet another legend in this play: Vivian Leigh, Olivier's manic-depressive wife. All the participants have an angle: Welles hopes that a successful collaboration with Olivier will result in Sir Laurence's proposed theater mounting Chimes at Midnight; Tynan wants to work with Olivier in hopes of landing a gig with the aforementioned theater; Olivier's motivation is a little murkier, a blend of wanting to reinvent himself as an actor and the opportunity to work with his mistress, Joan Plowright.
Orson's Shadow is catnip to anyone with an interest in mid-20th-century film or theater. Big names are dropped as though they are tabs of acid at a Grateful Dead show; juicy morsels of insider Hollywood gossip abound. And the exploration of the difference between the mediums of the screen and the stage is fascinating. But as a story, it lacks focus. Tynan, the play's instigator and our entry point (he directly addresses the audience throughout), is all but forgotten in the second half, when the clash of personalities between Olivier and Welles takes precedence. And the arrival of Leigh at a rehearsal, which leads to the play's climax, once again shifts the focus. Even though the play never really seems to figure out what it's truly about, the crackling dialogue and the intensely flawed characters at its epicenter (look up Leigh, Olivier, Tynan and Welles on Wikipedia—great reading) make it a compelling journey.
That ride is helped considerably in this Ricci Dedola-directed staging by stellar acting. Tim Thorn's Olivier seems a bit foppish, but he achingly portrays his character's deep insecurities and the agony of wanting to leave a woman he loves but who is bat-shit crazy. Jonathan Lewis' Tynan, though a bit timid for such an illustrious character, is thoroughly believable. Only Cassie Vail Yeager's overwrought portrayal of Leigh doesn't set right; then again, she's playing Scarlett O'Hara saddled by manic depression, so good luck with that. But it's Robert Edward's Orson who's the most riveting. No, he's not morbidly obese and doesn't facially resemble Welles, but his booming bass voice and total mastery of his character's bellowing ego and razor-sharp wit are a joy to watch. He's self-deprecating, tortured, hilarious and a primordial vision of artistic brilliance—often in the same moment.
The combination of words and acting make it impossible to not feel deep sympathy for these characters, and that's not an easy thing to do, considering they are all artistic giants of the 20th century, with awards, accolades and legacies. I mean, fuck, we're talking about Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind and Sir Laurence Olivier, for crissakes! But what Orson's Shadow incisively shows is that beneath the celebrity, legend and enormous talents, the hearts of very real people beat. And, at play's end, when Plowright, the only one to live past 1989, recounts the sad fates of her colleagues, it's less a moment to shed tears for these larger-than-life icons than it is time to reflect on this sad bitch of a life we're all tied to.
This review appeared in print as “Citizen Screwed-Up: Orson's Shadow fictionalizes a topsy-turvy Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier collaboration.”