Theater Review

'Tynan': A show to please the critic

SITTING IN JUDGMENT: Philip Goodwin as Kenneth Tynan in Studio Theatre's one-man show.
SITTING IN JUDGMENT: Philip Goodwin as Kenneth Tynan in Studio Theatre's one-man show. (Carol Pratt)
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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 27, 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.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

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. Through Feb. 6 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.


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