Lee Roy Rogers, Ian Westerfer, and Jeff Still in Orson's Shadow(Photo © Colin D. Young)
Lee Roy Rogers, Ian Westerfer, and Jeff Still in Orson's Shadow
(Photo © Colin D. Young)
Have you ever wished you could sit in on a rehearsal involving some of the greatest theater luminaries of the 20th century? In Orson's Shadow, Austin Pendleton provides the next best thing; the playwright has crafted a witty and irreverent theatrical speculation as to what went on behind the scenes of the 1960 stage production of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros at the Royal Court Theatre in London.

As the play begins, renowned theater critic Kenneth Tynan (Tracy Letts) tries to convince legendary film director Orson Welles (Jeff Still) to helm the production, which is set to star none other than Laurence Olivier (John Judd) and Joan Plowright (Susan Bennett). The action takes place while Olivier was still married to Vivien Leigh (Lee Roy Rogers). Pendleton allows all of these powerful personalities to clash against each other in the juiciest manner possible. The dialogue is hilarious and each character sharply defined. While it's obvious the playwright has great respect for each of these individuals, he's not afraid of making them look petty, mean, insensitive, or ridiculous. In other words, he makes them human, with both strengths and vulnerabilities that affect the way they behave towards each other.

Pendleton also plays around with narrative structure, particularly when filling in the audience on background historical details. For example, as Tynan talks with stagehand Sean (Ian Westerfer) about the offstage Welles, they begin a question-and-answer exchange that seems like it's going to lead to a capsule summary of Welles' life and career. But then Tynan stops the action, dismisses Sean, turns to the audience, and says: "I didn't want to turn that nice young man into a receptacle of exposition." He then proceeds to deliver a hilarious send-up of ways that expository information is introduced in badly written plays.

Part of what makes this so effective is the terrific performance given by Letts, who is better known in New York as a playwright (Killer Joe and the recent Off-Broadway hit Bug). Letts brings to the role of Tynan a dry wit and impeccable comic timing and delivery. He even manages to make the repeated coughing and stuttering that plagues his character seem natural.

The rest of the cast also impresses. Still slides back and forth between confidence and arrogance as Welles, while Bennett conveys a quiet strength as Plowright. Although Judd's Olivier often seems a bit too much like a silly ham rather than a talented actor, there's real feeling in his strained exchanges with his wife; it's obvious that he still loves her, even if he is terrified of her increasing mental instability. Rogers plays her part with an outer calm and seeming cynicism that masks a fragile soul. As Sean, the one figure that lacks a recognizable historical counterpart, Westerfer is endearingly clueless as to the prominence of the legends he's working with, although he is starstruck by Vivien Leigh because of her film career.

David Cromer's brisk direction keeps the comedy light while allowing the more serious scenes to have dramatic impact. He is ably assisted by his design team, which includes Takeshi Kata (sets), Tyler Micoleau (lights), Theresa Squire (costumes), and Jonah Lawrence (sound).

While Pendleton's depiction of events is fictional, it provides a fascinating glimpse at the way these theatrical giants might have interacted, much as Michael Frayn's Copenhagen imagined what went on in a meeting between physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. Orson's Shadow does not require detailed prior knowledge of all of the characters depicted. While there are certain jokes and dramatic situations that may be more thoroughly savored by film and theater buffs, the play is entertaining in its own right and can be enjoyed by all.