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Churchill

A potentially fascinating biography mismanaged into dullness.

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Ronald Keaton as Winston Churchill in “Churchill” at New World Stages (Photo credit: Jason Epperson)

Ronald Keaton as Winston Churchill in “Churchill” at New World Stages (Photo credit: Jason Epperson)

Eric Grunin, Critic

British statesman Winston Churchill was one of the makers of the modern world, for better and worse. Twice prime minister, a major participant in both World Wars, he was an unashamed imperialist of the old school, condescending to the vanquished peoples of the Empire; but he led his country to victory over the greatest challenge they had faced in a thousand years. And now Churchill, the one-man show currently playing at New World Stages, takes this man, one of the most dynamic orators of the century, and makes him dull.

It comes out so flat that it must be disrecommended even to those, such as myself, who find the underlying history of interest. The play is described as “by Ronald Keaton, adapted from the writings of Winston Churchill and the teleplay by Dr. James C. Humes,” and having done a bit of research (which I won’t bore you with), I’m inclined to fault Humes rather than Keaton. The actor does his best to be engaging, and director Kurt Johns keeps things from getting visually static, but the storytelling lacks a workable structure, proper pacing, and a sense of what is unusual versus what is trite.

The premise of the presentation is that it’s 1946. The war ended a year ago, and Churchill, 72, is now an ex-Prime Minister. The one interesting thing he’s done lately is to introduce the phrase iron curtain, though we don’t find that out until the end. Instead we meet an affable retiree, spending his afternoon painting, not a clue given that in another ten years he will once again hold the highest office in the land. And then he begins to recount his life to us.

It goes wrong almost immediately, as entirely too much time is spent on such commonplaces as his remote parents, affectionate nanny, bad grades, doting wife, and relaxing hobbies; while far too little is spent on the world-shaking decisions he was called upon to make. Nearly a third of the running time is spent on his childhood and adolescence, while The Battle of Britain is dispensed with in a couple of sentences. (This is less time than is given to his building of a garden wall.) We are told that he loved FDR, but not a word of their conversation is recounted, and instead we hear of his pet names for his wife. Controversial questions, such as his share of the responsibility for the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign, are brushed off. The loneliness of the many years during which he alone raised the alarm about Hitler, meeting only belittlement and derision, is hardly mentioned.

Ronald Keaton as Winston Churchill in “Churchill” at New World Stages (Photo credit: Jason Epperson)

Ronald Keaton as Winston Churchill in “Churchill” at New World Stages (Photo credit: Jason Epperson)

As for oratory, the lack of proper rhetorical context kills even such sure-fire phrases as “The only thing I have to offer you is blood, toil, tears and sweat,” and “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Done right they can wring tears from a stone; here they hardly land at all. Possibly the setups are missing because the writer knows the whole speech so well that he forgets we don’t, but still.

Ronald Keaton gives us an amiable but charmless man. (The latter is arguably authentic.) He replicates faithfully the halting speaking style (young Churchill stammered), but rarely gives the sense of calculated intensity with which Churchill could deliver even the most anodyne remarks. The man of steel who stood up to Hitler without blinking, who rallied Londoners suffering daily loss of life and property from relentless Nazi bombardment–that man is nowhere to be found.

The projections by Paul Deziel are very well done. The loop that features falling snow supplies an unexpected moment of beauty.

Churchill (extended through July 12, 2015)

Greenhouse Theater Center, SoloChicago and the Wendy & William Spatz Charitable Trust

New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 800-447-7400 or visit http://www.churchilltheplay.com

Running time: one hour and 50 minutes including one intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (524 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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