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Theatre Review (LA): Orson’s Shadow by Austin Pendleton at the Pasadena Playhouse

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For the sake of disclosure let me say I have seen or been part of four different productions of Orson’s Shadow. The production directed by Damaso Rodriguez, the new “wunderkind” Associate Artistic Director of the Pasadena Playhouse, makes my fifth. I like this play very much, as I think it captures, more than most “insider” plays about the theater, what really goes on in rehearsal, in the busy, chaotic lives of actors, and in the egos behind the scenes, which make it all possible yet can also lead to disaster. And it tells us something about the nature of the real superstars, before we had Britney or Michael J. What the current production proves is just how good the play is. Orson’s Shadow has won numerous awards for its playwright, Austin Pendleton, who also happens to be a terrific actor, director, and teacher. This production might just earn him some more accolades.

The production is solid and very professional and the acting is good. My qualms about it have more to do with the tone, which is heavily comedic at the expense of feeling. Yes, we want to see the larger-than-life figures of Orson Welles, Vivien Leigh, Joan Plowright, and Lawrence Olivier. But for me the play works better when it is more intimate (it was originally done at Steppenwolf in a 50-seat house) and more thoroughly explored on an emotional level.

A good example of this occurs in the first scene where Rita Hayworth’s name is brought up and Orson says he saw her recently and she didn’t know him. The moment was played for laughs, as part of a general riff by Orson about being forgotten in Hollywood. There’s no indication that Rita didn’t know him because she had Alzheimer’s and that her forgetting Orson would have been devastating for her.

It’s true that Orson never liked to dwell on the negative or on the past. Except when he is dealing with Vivian Leigh, we don’t see much of his inner world. Another example of this is the moment when Olivier calls him a fat failure incapable of playing Macbeth or Othello (roles Orson had played in movies). The scene is turned into a laugh by having Orson swallow a diet pill in defiance.

Scott Lowell, recently of Queer Like Folk, is quite good as Kenneth Tynan. The character is always on the verge of being annoying, with all his stuttering, smoking, and coughing, and Mr. Lowell manages to keep our attention and sympathies.

Charles Shaughnessy (The Nanny) is a wonderfully neurotic, prideful, foolish Olivier who is torn apart by his destructive relationship with Vivien Leigh. Bruce McGill makes a forceful, matter-of-fact Orson, showing us a man with a rapier wit who has survived by plowing ahead but also given in to indulgence. Sharon Lawrence is a very theatrical Vivien and captures the actress very well.

I particularly loved Nick Cernach as Sean, Orson’s feisty young Irish assistant. He has a wonderful, tough yet innocent quality, which contrasted effectively with the extreme egos he works with. Libby West is a superb Joan Plowright, showing may dimensions in her characterization.

One questionable choice in an otherwise taut, swiftly moving production was the opening. The scrim of a very elegant theater, the heavy music, and the loud applause that begin the piece are perhaps misleading, as the first scene takes place in the tiny Gate Theater in Dublin where it is stated that the audience was very sparse. Not so at the Playhouse, where the audience gave the production a nice round of applause – though no standing ovation, but that is more a sign of the lack of intimacy in a larger theater than of the quality of the show. Orson’s Shadow is at The Pasadena Playhouse until February 17.

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