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Orson’s Shadow

Acting legends kvetch and open up in a slightly exaggerated tale of theater history.

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Patrick Hamilton as critic Kenneth Tynan and Brad Fryman as director Orson Welles in a scene from Austin Pendleton’s “Orson’s Shadow” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow, at the Theater for the New City, is a clever backstage comedy/drama.  Originally produced in 2000 at the Steppenwolf company, it opened in 2005 in what was to become a long-running off-Broadway production.  Pendleton, who worked with Welles, imagines the discord and rivalry when superstars with superegos collide to stage a very avant-garde play, in this instance, Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.

It is 1960.  In Ireland, Orson Welles (Brad Fryman) is at a low point in his career, working on a stage production of his Falstaff-themed Chimes at Midnight, hoping to find funding to film what he thinks of his magnum opus.  To stay in the public’s eye he makes an all out effort to persuade Lawrence Olivier (Ryan Tramont) to star in the Ionesco play in London at the Royal Court Theatre.

However, Olivier, himself, fresh off his triumph in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, is having his own crisis.  His marriage to the difficult Vivien Leigh (Natalie Menna) is in tatters and he has begun an affair with the much younger Joan Plowright (Kim Taff).  Reluctantly, he agrees to this project hoping to establish his modern bona fides.

Natalie Menna as Vivien Leigh (Lady Olivier) and Luke Hofmaier as The Stage Manager in a scene from Austin Pendleton’s “Orson’s Shadow” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

Backing Welles is the critic Kenneth Tynan (Patrick Hamilton) whose presence gives weight to the importance of Olivier dipping his toe into new theatrical territory, despite his reticence.  (In reality, Tynan was not personally involved in this production as he was at the time a critic for The Guardian, putting himself between the proverbial rock and hard place regarding this Ionesco production and its two titans.) Tynan is the de facto narrator of the play.

As the rehearsals for Rhinoceros begin, Orson’s Shadow gets into the nitty-gritty of both the process and the flaws in the two giants. Welles is constantly rebuffed by Olivier who becomes a monster arguing over details and artistic philosophies.  The two even argue over who had the hardest knocks in their lives.

Meanwhile Leigh and Plowright hover and make their presence occasionally known.

Sean (Luke Hofmaier, likeable in his small role), a stagehand, wanders in and out of the action helping to keep it real.

Ryan Tramont as actor Laurence Olivier and Kim Taff as actress Joan Plowright in a scene from Austin Pendleton’s “Orson’s Shadow” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

For those interested in both theatrical history and the lives of our former artistic heroes, Pendleton doesn’t disappoint, even if he exaggerates and manipulates the facts a bit.  He does better with Welles and Olivier, both played smartly and quirkily, than he does with Taff’s almost invisible Plowright and Menna’s ghostly, but glamorous Leigh.  Hamilton’s Tynan is more didactic than dramatic, but he looks terrific and keeps the show rolling along.

Listening to these giants kvetch and spew is fascinating and strangely satisfying.

The production, directed stylishly by Pendleton, himself, is bare-bones, helped by Alexander Bartenieff’s lighting and Billy Little’s apt costumes.

The only quibble with the costumes is that Olivier’s suit might have been more elegant, but Off Broadway budgets may preclude high fashion, although the rest of the cast, particularly the women, wore perfectly suitable outfits.

Orson’s Shadow (March 14-31, 2024)

Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-254-1109 or visit http://www.theaterfortheewcity.net

Running time:  two hours including one intermission

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Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (552 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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