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Editorial Review

Theater review: 'Tynan' at Studio Theatre, brash as ever

By Nelson Pressley
Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The one-man show "Tynan" at Studio Theatre is based on the great British theater critic Kenneth Tynan's diaries of his final decade - he died in 1980, only 53 years old. Listening to his pronouncements on art is like hearing a man rant about a land where he used to be king.

"The critic's job - at least 9/10ths of it - is to make way for the good by demolishing the bad," Tynan wrote, a sentiment that makes its way into the fluid 90-minute stage adaptation by Richard Nelson and Colin Chambers. "I wish I were back at work bulldozing."

Philip Goodwin, who has played his share of kings, gives this line the regal treatment, but it's a rare display of Tynan's nearly unparalleled critical ferocity. The greater part of Goodwin's surgical portrayal is in cooler tones of mischief, disgust and melancholy; acting on a bare platform, with a lone chair from which to pontificate and with the Metheny Theatre's blasted back wall behind him, Goodwin delivers a brilliant mind not so much exiled as lost.

The wintry mood suits the play's theme of decline. The period of "Tynan" is the 1970s, and Tynan hadn't been a working critic since 1963. As this chronicle begins, he's nearing the end of his tenure as the Royal National Theatre's first literary manager, and though he still rates the odd plum magazine gig from the New Yorker, he lacks a steady platform for the ravishing and lacerating writing that made him famous. This Peacock (Tynan's middle name) plainly pines for the limelight.

Here's the shame: If you are familiar with Tynan, it's likely for the wrong things. Books chronicling his outrageous personality have long been easier to come by than books aggregating his theater writings. His greater reputation, therefore, is as a distinguished naughty boy of the 1960s and '70s - decades when it took some doing to stand out from the randy crowd. The easiest way to explain him is as the man behind the long-running nudie revue "Oh! Calcutta!" and as the unapologetic joker known for his spanking jones (a penchant well-explicated in the play).

Yet he was a splendid stylist, as this adaptation of the John Lahr-edited diaries reminds us. The most theatrical thing about "Tynan" is the gem-cut sentences within which Tynan performed; they are crafty, bravura events, detonations of deadly wit and mordancy. They ought to be heck on an actor - this wasn't playwriting, after all - but Goodwin, whose intellect is generally the first thing about him that registers onstage, is a great choice. He speaks in gleaming tones, admiring the linguistic panache yet effortlessly knifing whatever the hedonistic, acutely observant, relentlessly analytic character doesn't like - including his own disappointed and indulgent self.

Of course "Tynan" is major-league inside baseball, best enjoyed by viewers who already know about Tynan's testy relationship with Laurence Olivier, his bitter exit at the National, his strained marriage with second wife Kathleen and the cruel joke of spending his final years in the sunshine of California, when his carbon-loaded blood and lungs made a mockery of such radiance. (He was a heavy smoker and died of emphysema.) It's a juicy name-dropping play in which John Gielgud gets a few good punch lines via stories retold by Tynan, but no one's going to barnstorm before adoring hordes with this prickly profile.

That's fine: In fact, that's what makes this ruthless, vigorous performance worthwhile. Among other things, Tynan railed against the "vulgar narcissism" of demanding to see only ourselves onstage. "We go to plays to learn about others," he declared, and "Tynan" abides by that. The cold light cast on this subject by Goodwin and director Paul Mullins is Tynan's own, often aglow with wicked enthusiasm and never afraid to be harsh.

Tynan by Richard Nelson and Colin Chambers. Directed by Paul Mullins. Setting, Luciana Stecconi; lights, Michael Giannitti; costumes, Brandee Mathies; sound, Gil Thompson; projections, Erik Trester.

Philip Goodwin plays provocative theater critic in 'Tynan' at Studio Theatre

By Celia Wren
Friday, January 21, 2011

Glimpse actor Philip Goodwin sitting quietly on a sofa, in an out-of-the-way nook at the Studio Theatre, and you'd never guess at his current alternate identity as a flamboyant provocateur. The 56-year-old performer - a Broadway veteran and multiple Helen Hayes Award winner from his many turns on D.C. stages - is wearing a black suit, a sober blue tie and a white shirt that nearly matches his silvery hair. His voice is soft; his demeanor reserved.

But in "Tynan" - a one-man show running at Studio through Feb. 6 - Goodwin plays an ostentatious genius and social whirlwind who happened to be the grenade-lobber of modern theater criticism. The dazzling British prose stylist Kenneth Tynan went to bat for writers like John Osborne and Bertolt Brecht and, in doing so, helped steer the course of 20th-century drama.

In the pages of the New Yorker, the Observer and other publications, Tynan made pronouncements that were brilliant and sometimes cruel. Vivien Leigh, he wrote, approached the role of Cleopatra "with the daintiness of a debutante called upon to dismember a stag." Orson Welles's Othello "waded through the great speeches, pausing before the stronger words like a landing craft breasting a swell."

A gaudy dresser who at one point favored gold satin shirts, gold velvet ties and a purple doeskin suit, Tynan burst into journalism at a young age and later served as literary manager for Britain's renowned National Theatre. He devised the infamous 1969 erotic review "Oh! Calcutta!" and, on a personal level, he had hang-ups and secrets, struggling with insecurity and a stammer, and indulging a sexual fetish - spanking.

Tynan encompassed "a lot of things I thought it would be difficult to live with, difficult to reconcile," Goodwin says, explaining his interest in the part. "He was complicated. And to actually dig down deeply to a character like that is a huge challenge."

An additional incentive was the fact that Goodwin had never tackled a one-man show. "I had this strange idea in my head that it's something that every actor should try," he says.

A New York-based actor who considers the District his "artistic home," Goodwin has appeared at Studio in shows like "Ivanov" and "The Play About the Baby." A Shakespeare Theatre Company affiliated artist, he landed the Helen Hayes Awards for his roles in a 1989 "Twelfth Night," a 2000 "Timon of Athens" and 2006's "An Enemy of the People." Most recently, he played Malvolio in the company's 2010 Free-for-All "Twelfth Night."

"Philip Goodwin is one of the finest American actors," says Joy Zinoman, who recruited him to "Tynan" before she relinquished her post as Studio's artistic director. She speaks of Goodwin's "sophisticated mind" and "monklike discipline," recalling that the first time she directed him - in Gilles Segal's drama "The Puppetmaster of Lodz" in the early 1990s - the actor not only mastered puppetry but took to lugging one of the production's key manikins home every evening in a green garbage bag.

"That kind of dedication to the work, that he was going to spend 24 hours a day with this puppet and make it part of his life" impressed her hugely, Zinoman says.

Across town, Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn says he wouldn't have programmed "Timon" and, in the late 1990s, "King John" had Goodwin not been available for the title roles.

"He's got a great deal of equipment, in terms of his voice and his body and an ability to play different styles," Kahn says. "But he's also very, very smart - thinks very hard and often quite unconventionally about parts."

Kahn cites the time he cast Goodwin as the Fool in "King Lear," and the actor hit on the idea of playing the character as a double-amputee who scooted about on a wagon. "It was a wonderful contribution to the show. And Philip is like that all the time," Kahn says.

Goodwin is "a national treasure" raves Brian Kulick, artistic director of New York City's Classic Stage Company, where Goodwin will be performing in March in "Double Falsehood." When casting certain critical Shakespeare roles, Kulick adds, "Philip is the first person I think of, because he brings that tremendous humanity and poetry and life to things."

Although many of Goodwin's credits are classical, it was a Woody Allen comedy that hooked him on the limelight. Growing up in Maine, he auditioned in a high school auditorium for a production of "Don't Drink the Water." Hearing "the sound of my own voice echoing off the back walls," he recalls, made him realize how powerful vocal expression could be. He went on to major in history at Bowdoin College but subsequently studied acting in London and kicked off his professional career with the Acting Company, the American touring classical troupe.

Unmarried, with no children or pets, he lives with his partner in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood in a home boasting a modest assortment of art and knickknacks. To burnish the collection, but also for fun, Goodwin spends his spare time poking around flea markets, antique shops and eBay. He's particularly pleased with his recent purchase of an ashtray to match a crazily colored porcelain cat he happens to own. ("Maybe the cat wants to smoke sometime," the non-smoking actor points out.)

Visiting museums is another hobby - one that's particularly easy to satisfy during his frequent stays in Washington. The National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum are particular favorites, although he notes that last time he was in a show at Studio, he managed to visit the Textile Museum twice.

He also likes to read, especially history: Adam Nicolson's "God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible" is next on his list. As for perusing his own reviews: After receiving a few that rankled - "Doesn't everybody remember the stinging things in their lives?" - he has taken to avoiding them.

Were Tynan slinging the ink, of course, it might be different. "Tynan's writing was fantastic," Goodwin says, theorizing that the British virtuoso might flourish on the current Internet-chiseled critical landscape. While deeply discerning, Tynan's reviews brimmed with "that sense of showing off," Goodwin says. "That's what blogs are for. Look how much I can score off somebody else - how clever I can be!"

Of course, "Tynan," first performed by Corin Redgrave in England in 2004 and directed for Studio by Paul Mullins, is no mere portrait of a journalist. Dramatists Richard Nelson and Colin Chambers adapted the script from the diaries Tynan kept during the last decade of his life, and the play chronicles the writer's battle with the emphysema that would kill him.

Also included: Tynan's now-wistful, now-sardonic, always eloquent reflections on John Gielgud, "Larry" Olivier, Schubert, California carwashes, sex and spanking, C.S. Lewis, marriage, the wonders of driving a Jaguar and more. "Tynan" is a kaleidoscope of luminously phrased thought - but its real strength, Goodwin emphasizes, is that "it's about a life."