Correction to This Article
A Feb. 8 Style review of 'Orson's Shadow' incorrectly described Vivien Leigh as Laurence Olivier's first wife. She was his second.
Theater

'Orson's Shadow' Casts a Sly Eye on Celebrity

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007

Orson Welles has been described as many things, but "comic spitfire" would not normally be one of them. Until now, that is -- thanks to his role as an egomaniac desperate for a hit in "Orson's Shadow," the stylish backstage comedy receiving a regional premiere at Round House Theatre.

His foil in the immensely enjoyable production is another titan of self-regard, Sir Laurence Olivier. Self-pitying rants, childish tantrums and parallel displays of paranoia don't exactly make them the most sympathetic figures you'll ever encounter on a stage.

But it sure does make them fun.

Austin Pendleton, the veteran actor, turns playwright for this peek through the keyhole at an actual event: a 1960 London production of the absurdist comedy "Rhinoceros" that Welles was hired to direct and Olivier starred in with Joan Plowright. Around this slice of theater history, Pendleton creates his own juicy portrait of a moment in the lives of two famous men in middle age, each feeling enormous pressure to reinvent himself, to prove to press and public that he's still got "it."

"Orson's Shadow" fairly bubbles over with celebrated characters: Plowright, soon to be Olivier's wife, is on hand, as is the peerless London theater critic of the time, Kenneth Tynan. Vivien Leigh -- Olivier's first wife, immortalized on screen as Scarlett O'Hara -- makes an entrance, too, and given the circumstances of her mental disintegration, it's a suitably galvanizing one.

The power of all this collective celebrity -- you might call the genre Name-Drop Theater -- would be for naught if each of the actors assembled for this evening could not suggest a flavorful facet of the real person. No need for a Madame Tussaud's-style dead ringer: just an effective intonation here, a meaningful gaze or flourish of the hand there.

To many delightful degrees, the crackerjack casting in Jerry Whiddon's sterling production does the job. You relax the moment you hear the resonant voice of Wilbur Edwin Henry's Welles, and watch as the barrel-chested actor takes the measure of his character's wounds and grievances.

Anthony Newfield's Olivier is just as well pitched. Physically he might not strike you instantly as Sir Larry, but the bearing is right, and so is the funny intensity of his sense of superiority. This version of Olivier is that of an actor who expects other people to have his glowing notices committed to memory, too.

"Orson's Shadow" doesn't worry itself much with plot. It's engineered as a kind of chemistry experiment: What interesting control-freak reactions occur when you mix one part visionary wunderkind film director with an equal measure of suave tyrannical English movie star?

For the purposes of the play, Pendleton makes Tynan, portrayed here by Will Gartshore, the story's ambitious matchmaker. Friendly with Welles and eager to be tapped by Olivier to help establish the new National Theatre that the actor will run, Tynan convinces each man that the other is essential to putting together the London debut of Ionesco's "Rhinoceros." (An effective aspect of Gartshore's portrayal is that you're never quite positive whose career he thinks he's advancing -- his or theirs.)

The alpha-male pairing, however, proves disastrous. Not only does neither man trust the other (or like the play), but both also are so racked by insecurity and so in need of coddling that the drama takes a back seat to the psychodrama. Welles doesn't have the patience for the symbolism of "Rhinoceros," or for Olivier's preening. Shunned by Hollywood, the director is obsessed with finding alternative financial backing -- and vindication -- in a bid to play Falstaff in his long-aborning "Chimes at Midnight."

Olivier, stung by the perception that he's a classical actor of a fading old school, isn't particularly intoxicated by "Rhinoceros," either. He's too preoccupied with his mess of a private life, in which down-to-earth Joan (Connan Morrissey) is left to stew while Olivier tries to placate damaged, unpredictable Vivien (Kathryn Kelley).

The climax comes in a hilarious scene in which Newfield's Olivier has to rehearse a simple moment with Morrissey's Plowright, and instead turns it into a public purging of his resentments and neuroses. The precision of Newfield's performance is at all times impressive, never more so than when he's accomplishing the great trick of making Olivier seem as if he, too, knows he's playing Olivier.

Morrissey gives a lovely account of sensible, grounded Plowright, and Kelley -- costumed chicly by Kathleen Geldard -- gets spookily correct the crazy blend of seduction and terror in Leigh's eyes. (Her very funny exit line is delivered in a way that underscores the sharpness of Pendleton's wit.) And set designer Daniel Conway adds a satisfying dose of realism in the rendering of the backstage areas of playhouses in Dublin and London.

"Orson's Shadow" is most definitely a play for those who can never get enough of the jealousies and feuds and misadventures of the famous. But this is no measly meal for the E! crowd. It's an elevating, smartly entertaining glimpse at the extraordinary foibles of extraordinary men.

Orson's Shadow, by Austin Pendleton. Directed by Jerry Whiddon. Lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner; sound, Matthew M. Nielson; props, Timothy J. Jones. With Clinton Brandhagen. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Feb. 25 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East West Hwy., Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit http://www.roundhousetheatre.org.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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