By Bob Shuman

The aesthetic issue being explored in Orson’s Shadow (Austin Pendleton’s own play now celebrating its 25th Anniversary) might best be expressed if I show you a picture of the Little Tramp (or the Little Fellow, as Charlie Chaplin and Laurence Olivier might call him). 

My question to you is the following:  Are you viewing a character from Hollywood’s golden age or are you looking at an actor from a Beckett play, 1949 (advertising shot)?  The one was invented during an artistic gold rush, in the early 1900s, and the second, after the devastations of a world war; the first possibility represents the popular entertainment establishment and the second existentialism, socialism or anti-authoritarianism.  The roles of the famous thespians, in Pendleton’s excellent comedy, now playing at Theater for the New City until March 31, are considering the Rorschach, too, with their own bankability at stake, just as the audience, likewise, notices incongruous elements, such as contemporary folding chairs in a play set in 1960, the breaking of the fourth wall, actors seen readying for their entrances, and the disregard of a culminating confrontation with the words: “don’t plead” (and no one is pleading).  Are these characters the same, as before theatre seemed to be changing beneath their feet, are their techniques any different than what they had been, and, if so, why do they feel so lost in the shadows of a theatre rehearsal room?  These are but a few examples.

Examining the film Citizen Kane, critic Pauline Kael noticed also the overlap between commercialism and modernism in her essay “Raising Kane,” from The Citizen Kane Book, and she took sides on the ironies regarding Welles’s film: “The formal elements themselves produce elation; we are kept aware of how marvelously worked out the ideas are.  It would be high-toned to call this method of keeping the audience aware “Brechtian . . . ” (it would also be too early in this review to tell you the point she then makes).

Orson’s Shadow is about the collaboration between Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, and Joan Plowright (and tangentially, Vivien Leigh), in which the great auteur, Welles, is recommended by one of his friends, the English critic Kenneth Tynan, to work with Olivier—a mega star of the ‘40s and beyond–at London’s Royal Court Theatre.  The idea is to have Welles, the pariah, hired as director, for a production of Ionesco’s Absurdist play Rhinoceros (which will also give him a chance to gain funding for a Shakespearean film Chimes at Midnight). Just like today, Ionesco is a hard sell, but his vision is a legitimate and historically critical artistic reaction to World War II (as is Beckett’s) and his empty and little characters illuminate the path to increasing societal conformity.  Ionesco’s revenge is that his insight was valid and, by the ’70s, the hit musical A Chorus Line emphasized the mainstream acceptance of the societal ideal of machine-like uniformity. Brecht, whose characters, for oppositional German theatre, included criminals, sex workers, and the guilty and unapologetic displayed productions that  incorporated machine apparatus, along with film ideas from silents and ‘30s movies: “in the talkies the heroes were to be the men who weren’t fooled, who were smart and learned their way around.”  That’s why Orson’s Shadow is ambiguous—because what appear to be Brechtian ideas are comparable to what was appearing on movie screens, in the early years of the medium. The subject matter of a behemothic Orson Welles and prima dona Laurence Olivier is out of old Broadway, Hollywood central casting, and maybe Warner Brothers cartoons (Brecht would show up there, too, before the House of UnAmerican Activities could decide to kick him out of the country).  Pendleton’s script is not consciously or unconsciously reflecting the captivity of defeated Europe, in either weirdness or depravity.  His characters are too busy and hopeful to be caged in barbed wire. Not gigantic modernism or proto-fragmenting post-modernism, the writing is witty, rat-a-tat-tat typewriter music, with literary repetitions and foreshadowing. Forget Beckett—at its heart this is Hecht and MacArthur, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Ring Lardner, Moss Hart, Edna Ferber, and dozens of other smart, “wisecracking, fast-talking, cynical-sentimental” screenwriters and literati, to quote Kael, as well as Herman J. Mankiewicz, the man who wrote Citizen Kane, suggesting that Randolph Hearst’s mistress couldn’t sing and who made Welles, the genius, into a roving, homeless, Odysseus.

Patrick Hamilton as Kenneth Tynan, Luke Hofmaier as Sean, the Stage Manager. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Pendleton can make you think he’s known you all of your life—you can feel immediately comfortable with him, even if he can enter a room without being noticed, which, oddly, is a descriptor also mentioned in his play. For many he is not a playwright (although two friends and I have loved and laughed with and over this play since 2008) but, of course, a consummate actor and director who acted, as only one example, in Billy Wilder’s 1974 version of  The Front Page, the 1928 newspaper comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur; Pendleton was praised by Pauline Kael for his performance.  In the New York theatre world, everyone will have their stories, but I have known about him since 1972 when my mother came home from teaching in central New Jersey to explain that she had taken her history class to see Nicholas and Alexandra, a movie about the Russian Revolution, at the Criterion Theatre in New York City, on its last day.  Instead, the film had changed and the movie What’s Up Doc? premiered, starring Pendleton—the class was exultant.  Today, at Theatre for the New City, he is sitting two rows in front of me, in a blue sweatshirt and hoodie and blue ski jacket, occasionally chewing an orange-handled toothbrush.  Many will be watching his directing, whether he is part of the casts or not.  From the outside, he seems to allow his companies, often made up of new and unknown talent, to develop their roles from their own insides, in memorable, inhabiting, and complete ways. This is true for Orson’s Shadow, where the roles are luscious, because of the characters we think we know and the aligning interpretations of them.  The actors are facsimiles of who they say they are, handling subtext and rhythms adroitly:  an Olivier who can’t help being prissy and over-balletic (Ryan Tramont); a sane Vivien Leigh holding on and counting before she spirals out of control–a Sondheim line that might apply for her: “Clutching a copy of Life Just to keep in touch” (Natalie Menna); a young, down-to-earth, and, regrettably overshadowed Joan Plowright (Kim Taff); a reticent, stuttering (a difficulty Pendleton knew from his own youth) in-person and bold in-prose Kenneth Tynan (Patrick Hamilton); a compliant stage manager, holding it in (Luke Hofmaier), and, of course, the brilliant, untrustworthy, hammy, eternally damned Welles himself (Brad Fryman). You’d want Hirschfeld to draw them. The mood of the room is cozy.

Austin Pendleton and cast of “Orson’s Shadow.” Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Shadows are, of course, the central images for the play, and the murky Lighting Design is by Alexander Bartenieff,  incorporating ghostlight, spotlight, footlight, and sidelight; the Costume Design is by Billy Little. Sound Design, using music from the soundtracks of Welles’s films, is by Nick Moore. David Schweitzer is co-director. Mark Karafin is Assistant Director and Company Manager. Jose Ruiz is the Stage Manager.

Oh, yes.  Pauline Kael wrote, by way of Walter Kerr, that in the ‘30s, “A play was held to be something of a machine. . . . It was a machine for surprising and delighting the audience, regularly, logically, insanely, but accountably.  A play was like a watch that laughed.”  That is this play.

She also wrote: It would be wrong to call such a play Brechtian because it comes out of a different tradition.

I leave you to ponder the photo of the little tramp in conjunction with considering Orson’s Shadow.  

© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved. (Written without AI.)

WHERE AND WHEN: March 14 to 31, 2024; Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th Street) Presented by Theater for the New City in association with Oberon Theatre Ensemble and Strindberg Rep. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 3:00 PM. Wednesdays at 7:30: March 20 & 27. $25 general admission, $15 seniors & students. Pay what you can Thursdays. Box office (212) 254-1109, www.theaterforthenewcity.net Runs two hours with intermission. Opens March 17.

Press: Jonathan Slaff

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