THE INSPIRATION Welles.
An actor’s ego is expansive and frail. The Burbage Theatre Company is staging an unadorned but smartly performed production of Orson’s Shadow, by Austin Pendleton, (through June 7), directed by Jeff Church. On display is a sort of gladiatorial combat, employing arched eyebrows and withering putdowns instead of mace and sword.
The combatants are Orson Welles (Alex Duckworth), once an enormously celebrated director-genius but now only enormous, a far cry from the handsome young man married to film goddess Rita Hayworth; and Sir Laurence Olivier (Church), whose acting prowess is legendary but whose love life badly needs a script doctor.
The playwright deliciously imagines what conversations could have gone on when they worked together in 1960. The occasion is Welles directing Sir Larry in a production of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic Rhinoceros (one by one, townsfolk turn into rhinoceroses: fascism metaphor). Also in the play is co-star Joan Plowright (Allison Crews), whom Olivier would eventually marry, and English theater critic Kenneth Tynan (Nathaniel Lee), who had written of Plowright’s “agonized inadequacy.” Three years later Tynan would be appointed literary manager for the new Royal Court Theatre, but at this point he was just sucking up to Olivier for such a position (nervously stammering before him), a striking conflict of interest that goes unremarked upon in the play.
While Welles’s first film, the 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane, had launched him as a 26-year-old Wunderkind, that triumph subsequently and increasingly served as an invidious comparison. (“Am I to be remembered for one movie, which I directed from my highchair?”) As we meet him here, he is 45 and has never again come close to such an accomplishment. Welles is bitter. The studio withdrew his right to make the final cut for his subsequent films, he grumbles. Olivier “destroyed me in Hollywood in 1948,” he charges.
Olivier disputes that accusation, and there is plenty more for them to dispute: Acting on stage compared to on film (Olivier had recently given a well-received performance as a vaudevillian in John Osborne’s film The Entertainer). Whether old-school classical acting is up to the demands of modern plays, such as Ionesco’s. Welles has been directing Plowright in a modern style, while Olivier thinks she should come across more like Vivien Leigh.
The 53-year-old Olivier has an additional performance challenge with his marriage — another stage — to actress Leigh (Valerie Westgate). At 47 she is well past the height of her career, which peaked in the role of Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara. Leigh is more than volatile, she’s downright “crazy,” as she cavalierly declares more than once, manic-depressive.
As director, Church keeps the action moving briskly along while giving enough time here and there for the characters to blossom in our imaginations. He is concerned that we empathize with them: in a hyper-naturalistic touch, on two occasions he has Duckworth set knife and fork to a real steak, despite the disadvantage of having to then chew and deliver lines at the same time.