Olney Theatre's production of "The Dresser" gives us one-half of an equation--the servant but not the master, the treble without the bass, the shadow minus the statue that's casting it. As a result, Ronald Harwood's drama, highly admired in its London and New York engagements, looks terribly lopsided in this incarnation, one which, sadly but understandably, rarely leaves the ground.
Tapping his first-hand knowledge as a dresser to the English actor Sir Donald Wolfit, Harwood has dramatized the tangled relationship between a grandiloquent Shakespearean performer of the old school--Sir to the hirelings in his tatty company--and the chatty dresser and one-man cheering squad named Norman, who has helped keep Sir's gargantuan ego afloat for 16 years. The action is set in 1942, during the bombardment of England by the Germans, and Sir and his troupe have just washed into a provincial town for a performance of "King Lear."
The role is, presumably, Sir's crowning glory, but in reality, he is living on past triumphs and fast approaching his dotage. He can't remember his lines and when he does, he tends to confuse one Shakespearean play with another. In fact, earlier in the day, he wandered off into town, broke down in the marketplace and had to be carted off to the hospital. Now, with the curtain soon to rise, he is back in his dressing room, and it's up to Norman not only to rally the man's troubled spirits, but to get him into costume and ready for his cue.
Such is the framework for two extraordinarily rich portraits, one authoritarian and lofty, the other subservient and cheerfully pedestrian. Although on the surface they seem to be drawn from opposite ends of the spectrum, they are actually as interdependent as Siamese twins. The king needs his court, but the courtier also needs his king. One draws his definition from the other.
No such definitions are being drawn at Olney, however, where only Norman (David Cromwell) is holding up his end of the bargain. Chipper, abject, admiring and spiteful at one and the same time, Cromwell manages a subtly shaded performance. He is the classic Nobody, whose self-worth comes from his proximity to Somebody, even if it means in this case merely hiding Sir's dirty laundry during the day and washing his tights after the show.
Things have gone distinctly awry, however, with the casting of Bernard Frawley as Sir. When he first wanders in off the street into his musty quarters, Frawley looks rather like an Irish laborer, who relishes his pint and his potatoes. In the flowing white mane and beard of King Lear, he looks suspiciously like Father Time or quite possibly a Macy's Santa Claus. Both resemblances are unfortunate, and neither is easily banished from the mind.
What's missing in the performance, you see, is any residual stature. Sir is not yet a burned-out case. There are still embers within him that Norman can fan momentarily into flames. The ego is petulant and crotchety, but it remembers the moments of triumph and won't let them go. No longer a lion, Sir can nonetheless roar like one. Frawley, however, is content to take Sir at his word when he describes himself as "a spent force." If he is convincing as a feeble mountebank, the characterization pretty much stops there.
What should be a rich tapestry of mercurial backstage emotions consequently seems all too ordinary at Olney. Cromwell can only do so much when he is being fed so little. Give him another partner--Brigid Cleary, for example, as the junior actress and "company mattress"--and you can see him going the extra mile. The two of them have a minor scene together: she has been cozying up to Sir, and Norman, venom bubbling quietly to the surface, wants to protect his turf. Brief as it is, it is one of the strongest encounters in the production.
Although director James D. Waring unaccountably allows Sir to be upstaged repeatedly by the other characters--something Sir himself would never permit, if he had even half his wits about him--the production recreates the ambiance in the wings with some color and humor. The supporting players are not of the first rank, but then this is wartime England. All the accomplished actors are away at battle, and as Sir notes with passing disdain, he has been reduced to playing with "old men, cripples and nancy boys." Dorothea Hammond lends a proper air of fatigue to Sir's longtime female companion ("Her Ladyship" to the public), but it's impossible to accept the youthful Amy Lovell as the spinster stage manager, who has long pined for Sir from her station in the wings.
Flat and duller than it should be, "The Dresser" at Olney Theatre is not necesarily half-baked. But it surely is half-cast. And while we're on the subject of casting, why doesn't someone give Brigid Cleary, consistently admirable in bit parts at Olney, a leading role to the measure of her versatile talents?
THE DRESSER. By Ronald Harwood. Direction, scenery and lighting by James D. Waring; costumes, Virginia O. Schwartz; With David Cromwell, Bernard Frawley, Dorothea Hammond, Amy Lovell, Brigid Cleary, John Shuman, Dion Anderson. At Olney Theatre through July 24.