The year is 1960. The place is Dublin, Ireland, more specifically the Gaiety Theatre,
where renowned film critic Kenneth Tynan has just arrived on a mission. He plans
to ask Orson Welles of Citizen Kane fame to direct “the greatest actor in the
English language” in a production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. The actor in
question is, of course Lawrence Olivier, fresh from his stage and screen triumph in
The Entertainer. There is one hitch to Tynan’s plan, however, and that is Welles’
belief that “Olivier destroyed me in Hollywood in 1948.”

Tynan is not the kindest of critics, to say the least, and he would certainly turn
over in his grave were he to hear of StageSceneLA’s goal of “accentuating the
positive in Los Angeles theater.” In fact, he and his reviews are so reviled in
certain quarters that he declares about himself, “When you write harshly of
someone and they call you a bastard, you can take it merely as a statement of

Welles is nearly two decades from his career-defining masterpiece but still very
much a force to be reckoned with. He’s also a master of the cleverly worded put-
down. To Tynan: “You have a brilliant mind and you have no actual
information.” About Olivier as a director, “Larry could not stage a cricket match
on a very sunny day.”

If Welles and Olivier are not on the greatest of terms, then neither are Olivier and
Tynan, who ten years prior had panned Vivien Leigh (Mrs. Olivier) and remains
unforgiven. In fact, Olivier tells Tynan that a director has already been chosen for
Rhinoceros—Tony Richardson, who had helmed The Entertainer.

Still, Olivier is willing to listen to Tynan’s proposition, though he tells Welles, “If we
were to work together, you must realize that your words mean nothing at all.” Is
this arrogance, or merely bravado? Perhaps the latter, as Olivier is hardly the
most secure of actors, still smarting from a review in which Tynan expressed his
dislike of a particular moment in an Olivier performance. There’s also Olivier’s
belief that his soon to be ex-wife Vivien once took a lover, simply because Tynan
had given her a bad review.

A bit more back story. Olivier and Leigh were married in 1940 and though each
still clearly loves the other, Leigh’s manic depression has made it impossible for
them to stay married. There’s also the presence of young Joan Plowright, Olivier’s
The Entertainer costar, in his life, and no two women could be more different
than the ethereal, regal Miss Leigh and the earthy, working class Joan.

To make a long story short, Olivier finally agrees to be directed by Welles, and the
scene shifts to rehearsals on the stage of the Royal Court Theatre in London.

And the sparks continue to fly.

Will Welles be able to regain his past glory? Will Olivier stop directing Plowright
behind Welles’ back? Will Olivier be able to tell the very vulnerable Leigh that
their marriage is indeed over? Is chain smoker Tynan already suffering from the
emphysema which will take his life in 1980?

These are but a few of the questions raised in Austin Pendelton’s entertaining fly-
on-the-wall play Orson’s Shadow (conceived by Judith Auberjonois), which has
just opened the Pasadena Playhouse’s 2008 season.  Director Dámaso Rodriguez
has moved downstairs from the Furious Theatre Company, where he has
directed many a fine show, and proves himself amply up to the task this large
scale production about larger than life figures entails.

Orson’s Shadow proves interesting on several levels. To begin with, there is the
fascination of glimpsing the private lives of public figures who have reached the
status of legend.  (Only Dame Joan Plowright survives, with a career that shows
no signs of slowing down.) Second, there is (at least for me) the look at the
backstage goings on of theater people, including the rehearsal of a new
production.  And finally, there is the drama (and comedy) inherent when
individuals with powerful personalities, egos, and talents come together, and if
ever there were such people, they were certainly Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier,
Kenneth Tynan, and Vivian Leigh.

Orson’s Shadow is very aware that it is a play, and that it is a clever play, with
Tynan not only speaking to the audience, but winking at them as well. “I didn’t
want to turn that into a horrible piece of exposition,” he tells us, and then goes
on to take a phone call from “Darryl” (that’s Zanuck, by the way) which turns
into a lengthy and detailed … exposition.

Well-known film and stage actor Pendleton proves himself equally talented as a
writer.  In addition to the five real people Orson’s Shadow centers on, there is also
someone who would appear to be a Pendleton creation, Sean, the young Irish
stage manager. Sean knows relatively little of the world-famous egos who have
invaded his theater and sees no problem in addressing them by their first names.
When Welles informs Sean that it is he who directed Citizen Kane, Sean wonders
“What’s Citizen Kane?” to Welles’ consternation.

If there is anything about Orson’s Shadow that might prove a hindrance, it is
that the script is at times almost too “in the know.”  Younger audience members
may wonder who these people are and what the fuss is all about and even
those familiar with the main characters may find themselves getting lost as
these people recall various slights or refer to less well known works in their careers.

But no matter, with individuals as richly three-dimensional as Welles et al, and
with superb actors bringing them to life, these are minor quibbles.

Scott Lowell, looking and acting nothing at all like Ted Schmidt, the character
he played on Queer as Folk for five seasons, creates a Kenneth Tynan with a
clipped British accent and rapier sharp wit. Never have I seen an actor chain
smoke as many (herbal) cigarettes in two and a half hours as the script requires
Lowell to do.  (I could not help but feel sorry for his poor lungs.) But Tynan was
clearly a heavy smoker, and Lowell has a sensational scene coughing and
wheezing to the point of near collapse, foreshadowing the emphysema which
eventually killed the critic.

Charles Shaughnessy succeeds admirably at revealing the man behind the
legend that is Laurence Olivier. He has Olivier’s elegance and style, yet he allows
us to see his insecurities as well.  In a scene late in the play where Olivier declares
about his soon to be ex-wife Vivien, “I love her and she loves oblivion and I
cannot stand it,” the pain Shaughnessy reveals is palpable.

Bruce McGill is less successful at embodying Orson Welles, though it is by no
means a bad performance. What’s lacking, though, is the distinctively resonant
voice that is so well remembered, and though McGill refers to himself several
times as fat, he lacks the heft that playbill photos of the real Welles reveal.

Like director Rodriguez, actor Nick Cernoch is a member of the illustrious Furious
Theatre Company, and he follows his superb work in their Canned Peaches in
Syrup with an absolutely delightful and confident turn here as the cheeky Sean,
who is not at all hesitant about chiming in when one of “his” actors forgets a
line.  Cernoch is especially winning in his nearly flirtatious moments with Vivien
Leigh, whom he delights in calling Vivien despite her “It’s Miss Leigh” orders to the

Fine as the men’s performances are, Orson’s Shadow is a play that belongs to the
women, with both Libby West and Sharon Lawrence doing magnificent work

West is an actress who can do no wrong in my book. Having seen her in over half
a dozen productions over the past three years, I am continually amazed at the
way she disappears into the characters she is playing. Her Joan Plowright is plain-
speaking and down to earth, a calming influence on Olivier after 20 years with
the volatile Vivien Leigh, yet not at all afraid to speak her mind and speak the
truth to Olivier, even when it’s something he might not want to hear.

Finally, there is Sharon Lawrence as Vivien Leigh, a performance that could very
well be remembered during awards season. When she finally makes her first
appearance well into act 1, I very nearly blurted out “Oh my God, that’s Vivien
Leigh!”  Hair, makeup, gown, voice, gestures, body language, all combine to
recreate the Vivien Leigh we remember from the Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone
phase of her life/career.  Lawrence embodies Leigh’s grace and delicacy, at the
same time revealing her vulnerability and her tragic awareness of the mental
illness that threatened her life.  In the second act, Lawrence shows us Leigh in
the first stages of a manic phase, fearing both the mania and the shock
treatment that she knows will be used to end it, even though this will send her
into the depths of depression. In a devastating scene of Leigh’s impending
insanity, Lawrence is absolutely brilliant.

As expected the design team does fantastic work: Gary Wissman’s brick-walled
empty theater; Mary Vogt’s 1960s fashions, especially her two exquisite outfits for
Vivien Leigh; Dan Jenkins’ lighting and Cricket Myers’ sound (the realistic sounds
of traffic whenever the upstairs door to the street is opened—this is a Class A
production all the way.

I suspect that some audience members may find themselves a bit bored by the
characters’ shenanigans, especially those unfamiliar with them or not
particularly interested in the lives of celebrities. I however was fascinated, and
for those with an interest in classic films, famous actors of the past century, and a
life spent in the theater, this is a very satisfying piece of theater.

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
January 23, 2008
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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