Volume 74, Number 45 | March 16 - 22, 2005

Theater


Orson’s Shadow
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street
(212) 239-6200
Opens Sun. MAR 13

Photo by Colin D. Young.

Orson Welles

Making it up to Orson Welles

Austin Pendleton’s play has some genius of its own Head

By Jerry Tallmer

Kenneth Tynan, perhaps the most brilliant drama critic of his generation, was once taken by some American friends – dragged, would be a better way of putting it – to a performance, in London, of the Merce Cunningham dance company. Body motion, music of sorts, no dialogue.

When the show broke, Tynan stalked off down the sidewalk, knot-faced and silent. Half a minute and half a block later, he stopped in his tracks and, fighting against his lifelong bedeviling on-again-off-again stammer, exploded with: “I … require … w-w-words!”

Well, Austin Pendleton, who never met Tynan – “to my sorrow,” playwright Pendleton said the other day — has given him (and everybody else) lots of words in “Orson’s Shadow,” a deliciously funny-serious drama-a-clef that opens Sunday (MARCH 13) at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich House, just below Sheridan Square. To this auditor, it’s the cleverest thing of its kind since Tom Stoppard’s Travesties.”

The Orson of the title is – of course – Orson Welles, whom Pendleton did, briefly, in 1969, get to know in another connection, but who in “Orson’s Shadow” is about to be booted out as director of the 1960 British stage production of Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” starring Laurence Olivier – the boot being that of Sir Laurence himself.

A slight complicating factor in all this is Sir Larry’s having to choose between the albatross around his neck, exquisite but ever crazier Vivien Leigh, and younger, blunter, saner Joan Plowright, the new leading lady in his life. The problem, or, rather, the solution: Divorce Vivien, marry Joan, thus to save his own career, his own life.

“I did meet Vivien Leigh once,” said Triple-threat Pendleton at a rehearsal break. (He writes! he acts! he directs! depending on the circumstances.) “It was when I was in [Arthur Kopit’s 1962] ‘Oh, Dad, Poor Dad’ and my parents had come from Warren, Ohio, to see it. They were standing at the entrance of the Dorset Hotel in the pouring rain, waiting for a cab, and a woman next to them suggested they share a ride. She turned out to be [West Coast showbiz columnist] Raidy Harris, and in the cab she said she was staying with Vivien Leigh, who was about to do ‘Oh, Dad’ in London.

“So the next day my parents and I came to a high tea at the Dorset. Young and callow as I was at the time, even I could see that Vivien Leigh was held together by chicken wire. But so gracious, and with such an exquisite set of manners, such deep consideration for the other person. I was very haunted by that, just as I would someday be haunted by Orson and then by Olivier.

“My mom idolized Vivien Leigh. When, years later, she found out I was writing this play, she said: ‘Be sure you make Olivier the villain.’ To this day, you know, there are those who have strong opinions about whether Olivier was right to leave her. It’s like those people who are still fighting the Civil War.”

Pendleton as playwright hasn’t made Olivier the villain, but he hasn’t been too sparing either. What he knows about Tynan and Olivier – and this play knows an awful lot – the playwright got from reading everything about them, and by them, that he could put his hands on.

Orson Welles was a different matter. In 1969, Mike Nichols directed the movie version of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” Orson Welles, at 54 – 29 years after “Citizen Kane,” 12 years after “Touch of Evil” — played General Dreedle, and 29-year-old Austin Pendleton played Dreedle’s aide and son-in-law Lieutenant Colonel Moodus.

“I was in every scene he was in, and he was in every scene I was in. We shot it in the desert in the Baha area of Mexico. A very concentrated two weeks. The whole group of us would sit around in canvas chairs in the desert, and at lunch Orson would hold court.

“He was funny. He was very difficult. But also terribly witty. Witty and bitter –- and witty about being bitter.

“He was so destructive of Mike Nichols. I had a headache for two weeks, and I don’t get headaches,” said the Austin Pendleton who was dealt by the gods with a slight congenital stammer of his own, hilariously exploited by him as an actor in the 1992 comedy “My Cousin Vinny.”

It was only after “Catch-22” had been completed that Austin, back home in New York, started going to revival movie houses (remember them?) to take in some Welles films — “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “Touch of Evil,” “Chimes at Midnight” — that he’d missed or overlooked.

“And I said to myself: ‘Wait a minute! I don’t care how destructive he was.’ As Bill Clinton would say, I felt Orson’s pain. I would love to make it up to him, because I sold him short.”

It was, in fact, Judith Auberjonois, wife of actor Rene Auberjonois, who provided Pendleton with the chance to make it up (in both senses of the word).

“I was asked to write this play. In the spring of 1996, Judith, an old friend, invited me to have breakfast at their house in Los Angeles.” By then, two plays by Pendleton, “Booth” and “Uncle Bob,” had had numerous productions. “At breakfast, she said: ‘Why don’t you write a play about when Orson Welles directed Laurence Olivier in “Rhinoceros”?’ All she knew about that event was that Orson had been edged out.

“The idea was for Rene to be Olivier and Alfred Molina to be Orson. She’d first approached Wallace Shawn to write it, but for whatever reason, he didn’t want to do it. He told her to read ‘Uncle Bob,’ which she did, and she liked it.

“My first instinct,” said Pendleton during that rehearsal break the other day, “was to say ‘No.’ How do you write a play like that? But then, by coincidence, when I was at a friend’s house, there were two copies of Simon Callow’s ‘Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu’ lying on a table right there in front of me.

“Two weeks later, in a tiny town in Northern California, I looked down in the dust, and lying there was a little paperback biography of Olivier. I said to myself: You know what? I’m just going to read up on those two guys.

“And as I read I became aware that when Olivier forced Orson out of directing ‘Rhinoceros,’ it was the same time he was leaving Vivien Leigh. Then I got excited about introducing her into it. I spent a year doing what Arthur Miller did: Keep writing experimental scenes until you find the one that fits.

“Then I thought: The name Tynan keeps coming up. Though he was not involved in ‘Rhinoceros,’ he was obsessed with both these men” [and under Olivier would presently become dramaturg at Britain’s National Theatre].

Pendleton has Tynan down to a T, including the slavery to cigarettes that took his life through emphysema at 53. Militant slavery: He smokes and coughs all through the play.

It took Austin three years to complete a first draft. “Very hard work. And when I showed it to Judith, it wasn’t what she had had in mind.’ It also turned out that Rene never wanted to do it [play Olivier]. I said to him: ‘I’ve had you in mind for three years.’ Rene said: ‘Well, I didn’t want to tell anybody. Would you want to do it?’ ”

Austin is a member of the Steppenwolf company of Chicago, and that’s where he then sent the play, with a note that it needed work. “They said: ‘So work on it.’ ” It opened there in January 1999, cast and directed by David Cromer and winning raves all around, including one from Ben Brantley of the New York Times.

“After that, producers started coming in, wanting to cast it with celebrities. I got very stubborn,” says good-natured Austin Pendleton. “In July 2000 it opened in Westport, Connecticut – an unalloyed disaster. A hundred people a night walked out in a rage. Why? I have no idea.

“Every time it’s done, I revise it. I just revised it a month ago as we talk.”

ORSON WELLES: Oh, Ken! What’s this play about? What’s the plot?

KENNETH TYNAN: What play?

ORSON: Rhinoceros!

KEN: I thought you saw it.

ORSON: I didn’t pay attention. What’s the plot?

KEN; It’s about a town in which everybody turns into rhinoceroses.

ORSON: And this is – what? — my God, this is a metaphor. What are you trying to do to me, Ken? A metaphor for what?

KEN: Fascism.

ORSON: Aha. So Larry’s going to play a Fascist, this has possibilities.

KEN: No, he’s to play the little man, who …

ORSON: Larry’s going to play the little man? This is a plot, you’re trying to make me look ridiculous.

No, Orson, neither Tynan nor Olivier nor Austin Pendleton are trying to make you look ridiculous. Especially not Austin. He’s just trying to make up for having sold you short. I think he’s done it.

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