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Beate Hein Bennett

The Curse of Fame
“Orson’s Shadow”

March 14 to 31, 2024
Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (betw. E. 9th &t E. 10th Str.)
Presented in association with Oberon Theatre Ensemble & Strindberg Rep.
Thurs. through Sat. @ 8 PM, Sun. at 3 PM, Wed., 27th at 7:30 PM
$25 gen. adm. , $15 seniors & students. Pay what you can on Thursdays.
Box Office: (212) 254-1109, www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Runs two hours with intermission
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett, March 24, 2024

Austin Pendleton

Austin Pendleton’s play is theatre about theatre. Of course, he knows “his stuff” about theatre—after all, he is a veteran actor, director, playwright, and teacher of acting. And he knows about fame, especially in the performing arts, and what it does to a human being. In this play, however, he explores the vexing problems for a performer who had attained fame at a young age and now must contend with aging and being eclipsed by younger talents. And then there is the pressure of commercial success, given the cost of production and fickle audiences. Mr. Pendleton blends all these issues in a script around famous theatre personalities: Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier (before “Sir”), Vivien Leigh, young Joan Plowright, acerbic critic Kenneth Tynan, and Sean, a young theatre hanger-on who serves as a down-to-earth foible who knows nothing about theatre (or any other) history. The action is set in—where else—theatre, first the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, then the Royal Court in London! The time is 1960.

Patrick Hamilton as Kenneth Tynan.

The present production at TNC, directed by Austin Pendleton with co-director David Schweitzer, is on the 25th anniversary of the original premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. The NYC premiere was in 2005 at the Barrow Street Theater. Since then Mr. Pendleton has revised and developed the script into its present fast moving minimalist iteration. It is directed with a brilliant sense of rhythm. The cavernous open stage space functions as a backstage, or a rehearsal space, where the critic and the players meet, discuss, argue, rehearse, and from where they ultimately take their exit. In our imagination they are shadows but we see them on command on film, youtube, streaming on our TV screens, or on miniature smartphone screens. There is something melancholy and surreal about that reality! However, Mr. Pendleton’s play and production is far from melancholy—it is a brisk dissection of the performance of self—the heart of theatre performance—full of ironic humor and the pathos of the performer’s inherent self-doubt.

Natalie Menna as Vivien Leigh, Brad Fryman as Orson Welles.

The acting ensemble works like a well-oiled engine, responding to the pace and each other with an excellent sense of timing. The first to enter is Kenneth Tynan, the renowned critic who functions in the play also as historian; he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. Patrick Hamilton plays him as an acerbic, brilliant, seemingly arrogant but also easily unsettled young man—gaunt, frail, chain smoking, with a nervous stutter. Sean played with charming Irish insolence by Luke Hofmaier, sets up the backstage—we also glimpse a bit of a dressing room upstage center through an open curtain. With his back to the audience, we hear first the scruff voice of Brad Fryman as the rotund, robust Orson Welles at the Gaiety. His voice turns doleful when ruminating about his old successes –Citizen Cane! Falstaff!-- yet it is so dominant, it would fill any void. Enter Laurence Olivier into the mix! He is the male diva par excellence with his movie success of Henry V under the belt but troubled in his relationship with his wife Vivien Leigh while courting young actress Joan Plowright (in 1960 not yet his third wife). Ryan Tramont plays the consummate actor “Larry” Olivier with all the bombast, elegant diction and gesture required from the British traditional Shakespearian actor of the time; however, he tempers Olivier’s obvious need for attention with an underlying genuine desire for true acceptance as artist and as a man.

Ryan Tramont as Laurence Olivier, Kim Taff as Joan Plowright.

The actor Kim Taff plays Joan Plowright who is the smart mediating presence between the two cyclones Orson and Laurence. Her performance is multi-layered, intelligent and instinctual, the essential qualities of an actor. Natalie Menna embodies the aging neurotic, bi-polar actress Vivien Leigh, famous for her young Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” and her Blanche Dubois in Elia Kazan’s movie “Streetcar Named Desire.” In Mr. Pendleton’s play Vivien Leigh is on the decline, no longer the sought-after actress. Ms. Menna plays her wracked with nervous fears, desires, and frustrations, vacillating between playing the grande dame and a sex-starved woman who will throw herself on any young man, such as the befuddled Sean. Before she exits the stage on his arm like Blanche Dubois, “dependent on the kindness of strangers”, she triumphantly utters through clenched teeth the curse “MACBETH!” A gasp! This evokes the shadow of Orson Welles’s ill-fated voodoo “Macbeth” production. And the precariousness of live theatre in times of plague, the internet, and historic amnesia!

Natalie Menna as Vivien Leigh, Luke Hofmaier as Sean, the Stage Manager.

Happily TNC has survived all vagaries since its founding in 1970 by George Bartenieff and Crystal Field who has been the Executive Artistic Director since then. She is supported now by their second and third generation descendents: Alexander Bartenieff as Operations Director whose superb lighting skills also enhances this production, and his daughter Briana Bartenieff, a playwright in her own right, who has taken on the Development and Marketing for TNC. Austin Pendleton compliments Crystal, who “provides loving, comprehensive and productively stern support. It’s wonderful just knowing that her theater is THERE.” A full house at the performance that I attended attests to the love that this old East Village institution still commands.


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