Daisy Eagan (l) and French Stewart in Vanessa Claire Stewart's Stoneface, directed by Jaime Robledo, at Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles.
Daisy Eagan (l) and French Stewart in Vanessa Claire Stewart's Stoneface, directed by Jaime Robledo, at Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles.
(© Jim Cox)

It takes chutzpah to play actual footage of the genius Buster Keaton for audiences entering the Pasadena Playhouse before actors take the stage to perform those pratfalls and stunts. But this technique pays off when you have the stupendous, heartbreaking, and hysterical actor French Stewart starring as "the great stone face" himself. Using most of original cast and crew from Sacred Fool's 2012 production, and adding Tony winner Daisy Eagan, Stoneface is one of the most exhilarating productions in Los Angeles in recent memory.

The play traces Keaton's tumultuous career, from his success along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd as the silent comedy triumvirate, to his years of alcoholism, failed marriages, and anonymity in the film public's eyes. After humongous fame during the silent era's heyday, his greatest cinematic risk, The General, bombs at the box office, angering his studio head and brother-in-law Joe Schenck (Jake Broder). Keaton finds his craft compromised in the '30s, when his new boss at MGM, Louis B Mayer (Pat Towne), pushes Keaton into formulaic sound films, ignoring what has made him special. A loveless marriage to actress Natalie Talmadge (Tegan Ashton Cohan) and another to his nurse (Eagan) during one of his long drunk blackout periods only exacerbate his low self-esteem and his battle with alcohol. The love of a tender woman (Rena Strober) and eventual adulation in the '50s for The General, finally regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all time by the likes of Orson Welles and the American Film Institute, save Keaton's life.

Director Jaime Robledo manages to deftly reenact movie highlights, like the windblown house crashing down on Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr, and popular gags, like Buster in a drunken stupor being acrobatically lifted by his wife into a chair. These moments refreshingly remind audiences why Keaton is so revered. Instead of relying on the original films to show Keaton's brilliance, Robledo interprets the movies skillfully, making for a much more exciting theater experience. In a fantastic opening scene, Robledo and projection designers Anthony Backman and Ben Rock pull the actors into the movie screen with impeccable timing.

Writer Vanessa Claire Stewart infuses Keaton's life with poignancy. Time has revealed he is a genius, but the play deals with Keaton's struggles, emotional and physical, when few in Hollywood seemed to care. Stewart, wife of the play's star, has set a high bar for her husband by portraying all of Keaton's warts: his stubbornness, his disregard for his own health, and his isolation from his sons. Her dialogue makes the audience root for her protagonist, despite those faults.

Stewart uses the doomed star Fatty Arbuckle (Scott Leggett) as a harbinger of Keaton's destruction if he doesn't wise up, and a younger version of Buster (Joe Fria) as the devil on his shoulder, reminding him that the public loved only his younger self, not even recognizing the old dried-up shell he has become. This duality comes to a head when Stewart writes a boxing match between Keaton's younger and older selves, a battle to see if he can give up his ghost of the past and accept his life.

French Stewart is revelatory as the deadpan actor. Satisfying in the humorous bits, he's even more compelling in his portrayal of the broken man. Also requiring the same gifts in his gags, Fria is just as masterful in mimicking Keaton's punctuation of the visual jokes.

Ashton Cohan persuasively plays Keaton's cold wife, Eagan bewitches as his manic wife, and Strober beautifully embodies the lifesaver, the confident woman who brings salvation.

Guy Picot as Chaplin during the Limelight years and Leggett as Arbuckle both impersonate their real-life counterparts convincingly. As Keaton's bosses, Broder captures the Eastern-European meekness of Joe Schenck while Towne gloats and roars as the towering Mayer.

Joel David's sets, including an encroaching train engine and a maze of doors, enhance the reproduction of the silver screen. The original music by Ryan Johnson captures the flavor of silent-cinema piano players.

A treat for film fanatics and theater lovers, Stoneface is an arresting account of a comic genius and a triumph for actor French Stewart.