WOODY GUTHRIE - At Ford's Theatre through November 26.
Tom Taylor's able portrait of the American troubador, "Woody Guthrie," would have made a splendid night-club show. As a one-man play at Ford's Theatre, it can't compete with the successes that were done on Mark Twain and Will Rogers, or even the lesser ones on Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.
This is not the fault of Tom Taylor as actor and singer. He combines startling mimicry with tight renditions of bitterness, tenderness, outrage and drunkenness, so that they make a convincing individualistic mixture.
And it certainly isn't the fault of Guthrie, who was the best at what he did. It's a jolt to remember that "This Land Is Your Land" and "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" weren't always with us, like the rest of the American landscape. Affection and appreciation will carry much of the audience along without their caring about about the show's shortcomings.
These lacks are a result of the choice of subject. Guthrie was simply not, and did not pretend to be, a humorous-philosophical raconteur. He had his idealism and vision, but he stated these rather than playing with them. Such delving would have robbed his songs of their strength.
When he talked about unionism, it was an article of belief, with none of the complicated fascination of Shaw expounding on the merits of socialism. When he denounced senators as liars, it was blatant namecalling, not the wit of Will Rogers skillfully impaling a victim.Listening to these opinions as flat statements is simply not dramatic. And the sketches that Taylor devised from Guthrie's writings to illustrate his love and understanding of children do not serve the purpose, as his children's songs alone do. It's trite enough to have Guthrie impersonating his father's being too shy to explain sex to him, but to have Woody Guthrie dissolving in embarrassment over a question from an imaginary little Arlo is ludicrous.
It may be, however, that there is a play that has been overlooked here in the story of Guthrie's life. He suffered, for 14 years, from Huntington's Chorea disease, and died at the age of 55, long robbed of the muscle control needed for his work.
The ironic horror of this is done perfunctorily by Taylor, who begins and ends the show in a wheelchair, but never dramatizes the problem. His Guthrie sits gracefully in the chair, apparently only somewhat less energetic than before. At the very end, his voice is not as strong, and he misses a note or two on the guitar.
But Huntington's disease is associated with uncontrolled meanderings of the hands, which Taylor does not attempt. If drama were to be made of Guthrie's life, one could hardly ask for a more visual way of illustrating a musician's tragedy and spirit.