A play in which maverick critic Kenneth Tynan persuades fallen-on-hard-times Orson Welles to direct Laurence Olivier in a staging of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at London’s fledgling National Theatre? Surely an episode too rich, too bursting with life to survive the journey from cranium to proscenium. But in Orson’s Shadow, Austin Pendleton’s thoroughly delightful new drama inspired by actual backstage events, the execution is every bit as satisfying as the idea.
There are more great stories here than in a stack of old Varietys: Tynan’s reverence for Welles, whose career he has followed “like a yapping hound after a drifting air balloon,” coupled with his ambition to be involved with the National; Welles’s unquenchable vitality despite his post-Citizen Kane downward spiral; and—perhaps most moving of all—Olivier’s attempts to juggle support for his increasingly unstable wife, Vivien Leigh, with his new involvement with young actress Joan Plowright.
Each of the five superb leads manages the impossible, transforming a larger-than-life figure into a sometimes maddening, sometimes endearing individual: suave, stuttering Tynan (the astonishing Tracy Letts) quietly correcting someone’s misquotation of a review; Olivier (John Judd, all shoulders and aristocratic profile) taking direction from Welles on how to dust a chair; Welles laboring to temper his bruised ego with gratitude at having a job. These sensitive details help create a surprisingly intimate tale of endings and beginnings, damaged souls and stubborn wills. By the evening’s end, the riotous proceedings have acquired the fragility of a chamber piece—Leigh will soon die of tuberculosis, Tynan of emphysema—as autumnal and melancholy as Welles’s own Chimes at Midnight. New York’s revival houses may have gone the way of Automats and used bookstores, but thanks to Pendleton’s sharp, funny, and tender play, the golden oldies are as good as new.