By 1960, Orson Welles’ film career was in shambles — he’d been barred from the set of his final film in Hollywood, and had holed himself up in a Dublin theater directing a stage version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. The production bombed, and in desperation Welles was encouraged by good friend and theater critic Kenneth Tynan to direct a West End production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, with Sir Laurence Olivier and his mistress Joan Plowright.
This is the backdrop for Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow, a fascinating, witty, sometimes plodding fictional imagining of that 1960 production. With commanding performances by John Judd as “Larry” Olivier, Susan Bennett as the feisty Plowright, and an impeccable Tracy Letts as narrator and critic Tynan, it contains a number of magnificent exchanges between Jeff Still’s Orson and pretty much everyone else — though these do occasionally grow tiresome.
Pendleton begins with a killer setup in the Dublin theater, full of mystery and humor as we sense Welles’ desperate circumstances. The shift to London and Judd’s uncanny impersonation of Olivier sets up a clash of titans. But with the introduction of Olivier’s soon-to-be ex-wife Vivien Leigh the play begins to plod. Confronting fading celebrity and mortality has never seemed so much fun, and as Leigh and Welles examine their lives the lost promise of youth flits through the air. The opening, with whispers in a darkened theater by Still, perfectly mimicking Orson’s baritone, is as powerful a moment as you’ll find in theater. If only Pendleton could have maintained the momentum throughout.
Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St.