An ambitious though leaden theatrical fantasia that attempts to chronicle Orson Welles’ monumental life and career from youthful glory to forlorn old age.
The Whole World Was Watching: My Life Under the Media Microscope is the autobiography of the South Carolina native journalist and television production figure Frank Beacham that was published in November 2018. A portion of it details his six-month involvement with Welles while they were attempting to produce a King Lear video project, aborted by his death at the age of 70. Instead of an artfully whimsical take, this adaptation gives us a lumpy Welles 101, ticking off familiar events laden with the tritely imparted theme of the artist versus cold Hollywood capitalism.
Mr. Beacham and co-writer George Demas structure Maverick as a series of choppy short scenes. The bare essence of a plot tediously revolves around the development of a new video camera. There are terse dutiful references to The War of the Worlds, Citizen Kane’s screenplay credit clash with Herman J. Mankiewicz, bitter conflicts with producer John Houseman and studio butchering of The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil. We travel back and forth from New York City in the 1930’s during the glory days of The Mercury Theatre to the forlorn final era of holding court at Los Angeles’ French restaurant Ma Maison with Welles’ poodle Kiki in attendance. It all plays out wanly without a cumulative impact over two acts culminating with the 1985 pre-death Merv Griffin interview.
Meta trimmings compound the show’s irritating qualities. We’re constantly reminded that we’re watching a play. Direct addresses to the audience are plentiful. That the leading actor doesn’t convey Welles’ elderly decrepitude, or his youthful robustness is explained away as that’s because this is a memory play.
The personable, bearded and stocky Mr. Demas delivers a pleasantly credible performance as Welles but decidedly lacks his grandeur and vocal heft. This leaves a tremendous void, magnifying the deficient dramaturgy. The absence of a riveting Orson Welles dooms Maverick.
Folksy and charming Stephen Pilkington is appealing as Frank but doesn’t offer much of a contrasting characterization when he awkwardly switches over to play John Houseman. Instead of having this integral role performed by a different actor, the authors make an obvious comparison that Houseman and Beacham are similar figures.
Actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, television hosts Robin Leach and Merv Griffin, cinematographer Gary Graver, and a gallery of many minor characters are represented as hurried stick figures. Before cast members’ names the show’s program lists their roles followed by the superfluous “etc.” If they perpetually and uniformly go overboard in bringing their thin characters to life, that’s because it’s necessary considering the hollow tone of the piece. This talented noble company is made up of Alex Lin, Matt Mundy, Brian Parks, and Jed Peterson.
Apart from moving the actors around with proficiency, the staging by Demas (yes, he also directs) and co-director David Elliott isn’t much else. David Zeffren’s accomplished lighting design is suitably cunning. Sound designer Tyler Kieffer skillfully balances the abundance of music that of course samples The Third Man’s zither theme and effects with verve. Jess Gersz’s basic costume design does provide a cool black cape and hat for Welles.
The look of Charles Foster Kane’s warehouse combined with a soundstage is the arresting spacious environment that scenic and prop designer Tekla Monson provides with the sense of an otherworldly dimension. Boxes and trunks and are swiftly rearranged to take us from one location to another.
Playwright Austin Pendleton’s 2005’s Orson’s Shadow was an acclaimed work that vividly depicted Welles along with Kenneth Tynan, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Joan Plowright. It was simply centered around Welles’ directing Rhinoceros for the London stage in 1960. Maverick is unsuccessfully carried away by grand ambitions that seem to emulate its subject’s.
Maverick (through March 2, 2019)
Pam Carter and The Cliplight Theater
The Connelly Theater, 220 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 609-300-4436 or visit http://www.mavericktheplay.com
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with one intermission
Imagine trying to be a theatre critic who after some 500-something reviews still has to include ‘led visitors around the Theatre District’ in his bio. That explains this review.
You know the critic is important when he has to include ‘took visitors through the Theatre District and several Broadway theatres’ in his bio. That explains this review.