The Midlife Crises of Orson Welles and Co.

Kathryn Kelley portrays Vivien Leigh and Wilbur Edwin Henry is Orson Welles in Austin Pendleton's comedy
Kathryn Kelley portrays Vivien Leigh and Wilbur Edwin Henry is Orson Welles in Austin Pendleton's comedy "Orson's Shadow." (By Stan Barouh)

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By Lisa Traiger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 2, 2007

"Once one is called a living genius, one only exists to disappoint."

So says theater critic Kenneth Tynan about his friend Orson Welles in the third act of the comedy "Orson's Shadow," a fictional account of real events in the lives of theatrical and film luminaries Welles, Laurence Olivier, Olivier's wife Vivien Leigh and his mistress -- and later wife -- Joan Plowright.

Welles, the man who created his masterpiece "Citizen Kane" in 1941 at age 25, spent much of his life trying to live up to his youthful promise. And veteran playwright, director and actor Austin Pendleton spent three years researching, writing and rewriting the tightly scripted banter among a middle-aged Welles, his colleague, Olivier, and their mutual younger friend Tynan, as well as Leigh and Plowright. The result, "Orson's Shadow," became an off-Broadway hit when it premiered in 2005.

Pendleton, a New Yorker, was inspired by an unheralded moment in theater history when in 1960 Welles was coaxed to helm a production of French absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros," starring Olivier in the dusk of his career and Plowright as she was just hitting her stride. Tynan, at least in the play, serves as the matchmaker; in real life he was a friend to both Olivier and Welles. The allegorical drama opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London's West End, and it was received well enough, but the goings-on backstage accounted for the real fireworks.

"These stars were at a point in their lives that would now be called a midlife crisis," Pendleton, 66, said by phone from his home. "They were at a moment when they were wondering what to do with their lives. Even the younger ones were in a midlife crisis somehow, because the critic Kenneth Tynan was just in his early 30s at the time."

In other words, it didn't take much to set them off, Pendleton found as he began putting "Orson's Shadow" together, searching for conflicts among the principals.

"The way the play's written," he continued, "you really don't ever see them performing. You see Olivier rehearsing a scene where he's having a lot of trouble . . . which to me is the mark of a great artist. All the really great actors I've ever worked with get themselves into terrible trouble in rehearsal because they're so impatient for the truth and so hard on themselves."

The banter in rehearsal raises a curtain on what goes on in actors' heads as they prepare for a role or even as they simply struggle with a line. But Pendleton is acutely aware that these illustrious personalities are, in a sense, never quite offstage. Even as the conversations unspool with a deceptive naturalness, it becomes clear that all of these actors are hyper-aware of how they present themselves.

As a young actor himself, Pendleton worked closely with Welles on the 1970 Mike Nichols film "Catch-22." Welles played Brig. Gen. Dreedle; Pendleton was Dreedle's son-in-law. The pair spent two weeks shooting in Mexico, and the playwright remembers Welles as "impossible" but ultimately lovable.

"Afterwards, I thought back on him very, very fondly," Pendleton said. "I began to feel very sorry for him. His professional life, his artistic life at that time was so besieged and so in trouble. I felt . . . that his movies were just dismissed after 'Citizen Kane.' He's so underrated."

But as underrated as he was, Welles was never to be underestimated, Pendleton reported, even late in his career.

"He was funny and he was interesting and he was charismatic and he was charming and he was utterly fascinating," Pendleton said. "But he just made it really hard. I think he wished he had been directing."

Orson's Shadow Round House Theatre Bethesda 240-644-1100 Through Feb. 25


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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