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A Life in the Theater: Orson's Shadow

Susan Bennett as Joan Plowright, Photo by Colin D. Young

You can make a killing in the theater, but you can’t make a living, as the infamous adage goes, and New York theater doesn’t seem to disagree, with its graph-able gap between long-run Broadway musicals and the more vital, but short-lived dramas found in non-profit or off-off Broadway showcases. But every once in a while, there comes along a show that lasts, long after the reviews are doled out, and even through a long New York summer. What makes it stick? Hard to say. But Orson’s Shadow , now entering its seventh month and still selling strong, seems to be making not only a living, but a life, in the West Village ’s Barrow Street Theater.

There are a great many people who want to believe in theater. They don’t always go see it, but they do love the lure and lore of the stage. Orson’s Shadow feeds this impulse, resuscitating a moment in theater history in which critic Kenneth Tynan, Orson Welles, Lawrence “Larry” Olivier, Joan Plowright and Vivien Leigh (order of appearance) all briefly shared the same stage, theatrically and in life. The play brings us behind the scenes of their embattled, ego-and-love-torn attempt to stage Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros , a modern parable about fascism which none of the artists particularly like or understand, but which they are all attaching to in a desperate attempt to move their careers into the modern age.

The play is at its best when it succumbs to the inner pace of Austin Pendleton’s sharply honed banter, thick with stage jokes and career-jabbing innuendoes between the great egos. Staged with depth and flair by David Cromer, the characters manage to hover between the stately giants of our collective imagination and bundles of needy, neurotic and sometimes fierce co-dependency. The symbiotic relationship between the verbosely controlling Olivier and brilliantly manic Vivien Leigh is as exhausting as it is moving. Welles is portrayed in his bloated middle-age, fumbling for the reins of a career that peaked, too soon, twenty years prior with Citizen Kane . Tynan—he himself doesn’t seem quite certain— is either trying most selflessly to help his old friend Welles, or he is using him to get to Olivier (with whom he will go on to run the National Theater). And Leigh is of course trying to recover from being Scarlett O’Hara (not to mention from her marriage to Olivier).

It is a world full of the Theater—and quite naturally so. The Scottish Play which dare not be named runs like a curse itself through the script’s tight weave. (“Macbeth… Macbeth!” proclaims a victorious and liberated Leigh—the fine Jennifer Van Dyck—with perfect elocution as she finally leaves the overbearing Olivier towards the play’s end). Tynan, as he narrates through direct address, guides us with the wry, sparkling and incisive fluency of his critical prose; and yet, entering the drama as a character, he suddenly dissolves into debilitating bouts of emphysema-induced coughing and conflict-averse stuttering. He is questionably a Prince Hal to Welles’s Falstaff, and the Shakespearean references abound, one of his plays or another having led all these paths to cross, baring loves and betrayals nearly as tragic.

Against the glare of these tortured creatures, the young Joan Plowright, played with grounding sanity and sharp intelligence by Susan Bennett, comes across as a real working actor, who also happens to be Olivier’s lover. She is the only one who can really handle him, soothing his tirades and standing by, persevering as he childishly makes her witness his every act—including, quite painfully, his failed attempt to break up with Leigh, and, later, their desperate if temporary reconciliation. Yet Plowright is also the only one actively striving to forge a life both in and out of the theater (she and Olivier will ultimately marry and have four children; she will also run the National with him and Tynan, while maintaining her own career).

Appropriately, Bennett is the only actor to have stayed with her role from the play’s inception (the entire New York run, as well as its premiere at Steppenwolf in Chicago ). In New York, she has worked steadily through four cast changes and three understudies, and is preparing for three more in September (two actors are leaving, and one is returning). Having the opportunity to stay with a role for so long is rare in New York , and Bennett has been enjoying the challenge to keep the role fresh and her imagination alive as an actor. It’s also given her the opportunity to cultivate some of Plowright’s qualities in herself—patience, strength, personal adversity in a professional environment—the very traits that help actors survive a life in the theater.

She chuckles at the idea that the theater is a cruel mistress—or perhaps a bit like being in a love affair with Lawrence Olivier. “It also has the qualities of a great romance,” she says: “The courtship, the passion, the tumult; the breakup and reconciliation.” And ultimately? Her voice is as sure and committed as her character’s: “You emerge with an attachment to a wonderful relationship.”

Orson’s Shadow , by Austin Pendleton, directed by David Cromer, presented by Planetearth Partners, Inc. and Scott Morphee, is playing at the Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street (at Seventh Avenue South ).

Show times: Tues-Fri, 8pm ; Sat, 3 & 8pm , Sun 3 & 7:30pm . Tickets: $55, at or 212-239-6200.

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Emily DeVoti


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2005

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