How does a star negotiate a changing age? With a swift blazing trail, or a slow burn of stricken studio access and too many steak dinners? It's a fraught transition for heavyweights Orson Welles (Todd Hunter) and Laurence Olivier (Christopher Savage) in Orson's Shadow, which brings the two together and into modernity. Gary Locke directs at the Players' Ring, in Portsmouth.
Orson is dealing with the anti-climax of having hit his creative peak at 26, with Citizen Kane. Though he's just finished his first Hollywood movie in a decade, he has also been shut out from his studio and gotten fat. He's acting on stage in Dublin when critic Ken Tynan (Mitch Fortier), long a friend and admirer, tries to broker a proposition for Orson to direct another aging great, Larry Olivier, in a production of Ionesco's absurdist Rhinoceros. Easier said than done: Orson and Larry's rapport is one of competing narcissists and un-veiled slights, and Ken has already irked Larry by any number of his reviews, notably one of Larry's wife, Vivien Leigh (the exquisite Constance Witman). So Ken, along with a stagehand named Sean (Glenn Provost, with terrific comic timing), must struggle to keep egos massaged for the sake of art, as the stars catch glimpses of both immortality and the abyss.
Hunter is perfectly cast and bulked up as Orson; his glib basso profundo is iconic from his first bellows to Ken from offstage. As Larry, Savage has perhaps a little less of an effete grace than I might have expected, but the tenor of his wide-eyed self-absorption rings true. The banter they perform for everybody is non-stop; in a representative dig, Orson credits Larry with "turning Hamlet into a bad Joan Crawford movie." The grown-ups in the room are Ken and Joan Plowright, Larry's new lover and Rhinoceros co-star (Laurie Torosian, a quiet force of warmth and intelligence), who roll eyes but understand the adult-sized insecurities beneath the childishness. And in the anxiety department, the manic-depressive, tubucular Vivien is in a class by herself: Under her fine diction and witty patter we can see, in restless wrists and taught throat, the woman's terror running like a clear stream.
Among these folks, drama is the expected m.o. offstage as well as on, and Locke directs some lovely scenes of it. He actually has Joan and Ken sit in theater seats to watch Larry on the phone with Vivien and failing to break things off with her. Another scene squares Larry off against Orson in rehearsal, when Larry is at hilarious loss for motivation toward Joan's character. He starts and stops the scene, refers ad nauseam to past roles opposite Vivien, finally convinces himself that the moment calls for dusting the set furniture, and then asks, not exactly rhetorically, "How does one dust, never having dusted?"
Orson finally takes control of the scene, and with keen intelligence about Larry's discomfort as an intentionally putzy character in a modern play, asks him to "keep the suspense: Is Larry Olivier ready to disappear to join the modern age?" To hear Larry, suddenly moved and even modest, proclaim, "I will become a blur," is to hear a man subjugating ego to both art and history.
Megan Grumbling can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
ORSON'S SHADOW | by Austin Pendleton | Conceived by Judith Auberjonois | Directed by Gary Locke | Produced by Phylloxera Productions | at the Players' Ring, in Portsmouth, NH | through October 9 | 603.436.8123