His contribution was as an apostle, even the messiah, of a belief that the American theater is the artistic peer of the theater to be found in Moscow and other European capitals. A Lower East Side native and the son of a successful doctor, Clurman roomed in Paris at the Sorbonne with composer Aaron Copland in the '20s and attended productions of the Moscow Arts Theater. During this period, he became increasingly aware that what America saw of itself onstage was not what he saw of America offstage.
As Ronald Rand efficiently conveys in Clurman, the solo play that he wrote and is now performing at the Century Center Theatre, the man had a passionate belief in American theater. Tradition and continuity are central to artists' growth, he felt, but theater artists sometimes find these concepts hard to grasp. "Why am I telling you this? Because you have amnesia!" Clurman jocularly admonishes his charges, and we do. The lessons of the Group Theater -- ensemble process, creating one's own context, finding a vocabulary in new American plays and building on it -- are rarely taught now. Seeing Clurman reminds us that when the theater reinvents itself every 10 minutes, we end up with vogue, not veritas.
Following a brief association with Eugene O'Neill's Provincetown Players as an actor and assistant, Clurman met Stella Adler, whose father Jacob's performances at the Yiddish theater had held him rapt as a boy. During a backstage confrontation, Clurman convinces Adler to join the collective that became the Group Theater. Her involvement was thorough, and their marriage was central to Clurman's life. (Its difficulties are glossed over here.)
In Rand's Clurman, we end up getting to know (or are reminded of) Clurman the icon and Clurman the public persona, not Clurman the man. But the experience is uncanny and fairly inspiring, especially for actors as audience members. And despite the inevitably filtered view of Clurman that is offered by a script written from the perspective of the man himself, Rand the playwright is honest enough to occasionally allow the man to appear self-important.
As a performer, Rand ably brings to life Clurman's bearing and voice; he embodies the man's energy and humor, his revolutionary passion and avuncular didacticism, even if he relies a bit too heavily on some tics. Director Gregory Abels does a good job of keeping the show moving and engaging. Steeped as it in in the highest ideals of theater, Clurman has trouble living up to them. Still, this spectacularly well researched and well acted history lesson deserves praise. For a rare example of the ideas behind the Group Theater in action today, check out any of the LAByrinth Theater's new American plays; to hear the source himself, check out Clurman.