War of the Welleses: Orson and the missus will sell no whine before its time.
War of the Welleses: Orson and the missus will sell no whine before its time.

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Celebrity narcissism + audience voyeurism ÷ ordinary human vulnerability = guaranteed laughs, with a little something wistful in the remainder column: It’s an old equation, but Orson’s Shadow proves it out all over again, and pretty elegantly, too.

Austin Pendleton’s satisfyingly smart backstage comedy—written with a crisp and jaundiced affection for the sacred monsters of showbiz, and staged with joyful relish by Jerry Whiddon for Round House Theatre—puts the formidable Orson Welles (mid-eclipse edition) in a rehearsal room with the redoubtable Laurence Olivier (midlife-crisis edition) circa 1960, as a risky staging of an absurdist comedy threatens to go south. Don’t think for a minute, though, that either of these two titanic personalities is worried purely about the art. The on-the-outs director is angling to raise money for Chimes at Midnight, his down-at-heart film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Falstaff plays; the grand old actor, meanwhile, is banking on Welles’ interpretive savvy to make a success of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros—a play both men despise for its blunt modern allegory but one in which Olivier means to prove he’s still relevant in a theater whose Angry Young Men have lost patience with his Lion of England style.

Promising, no? It gets better: The matchmaker in this unholy alliance is Kenneth Tynan, the chain-smoking, sex-mad, take-no-prisoners critic who idolizes Welles and wants to be Olivier’s right-hand man at the soon-to-launch National Theatre of Great Britain. And the two women on the margins, watching bemusedly and amusedly and appalled by turns, are Olivier’s wife and mistress, the batshit-crazy star Vivien Leigh and the level-headed, no-nonsense journeyman actor Joan Plowright—both of whom have felt the scratch of Tynan’s wicked pen. Awkward moments, anyone?

And how: Orson’s Shadow cares less about how this unlikely Rhinoceros will come off—we never do learn—than about how gifted men and women cope with the challenge of dazzling an audience grown wise to their tricks. (Or weary of their tics: Pendleton puts the legendarily difficult Welles at the play’s broody center, asking how an obdurate perfectionist ever achieves anything—much less a triumph—in a business defined by compromises and collaboration.)

So Anthony Newfield’s unrepentantly grandiose Olivier frets baroquely about how to shake off theatrical godhood—“One is only 53, and already one is mired in cliché,” he groans—and descend to play, honestly and messily and at risk of his legend, among the mortals. Wilbur Edwin Henry negotiates Welles’ sulks and his lashings-out and his abrupt, convivial confessions with a convincing basso roar and an agreeable sense of the wounded softie behind the defensive shell. (No one here, it’s worth pointing out, attempts anything so crass or fatal as a celebrity impersonation: The actors trade, instead, in suggestion, in the essence of Welles or Olivier or Leigh, and they’re canny enough about it that by the end of the evening you’ll be convinced they look like the originals.)

Will Gartshore makes Tynan a surprisingly forthright opportunist, a man too smart to try duping such cunning theatrical animals outright—and too conscious of their gifts to spare them a lashing when their self-indulgence threatens to sink the show. (Best line of the evening is Tynan’s: “[I]f they’re capable of greatness, they should bloody well achieve it!…[S]urely all they need is a cheerfully administered humiliation, as by a brisk, demented fourth-form rugby coach, to lash them on.”)

Pendleton’s script is content to let the ladies serve mostly as foils and instigators, but Whiddon’s staging makes the most of them: There’s a terrific poignancy to Kathryn Kelly’s delicately mad Vivien Leigh (a fashion-plate opportunity seized with élan by costumer Kathleen Geldard), who knows not just how fragile she is but how much her fragility has damaged Olivier in their decades together. Connan Morrissey’s wonderfully warm Joan Plowright is the sane, humane anchor of an otherwise wildly unstable love triangle, and it says worlds about the quiet strength of Morrissey’s performance that you ache for her when Olivier can’t bring himself to cut his ties to his mercurial, manipulative wife. Clinton Brandhagen rounds out the cast, playing the cheerfully clueless stagehand who keeps stumbling into inopportunities on Daniel Conway’s nicely cluttered backstage set.

And so they snap at and soothe one another, and the banter crackles along nicely until someone strikes close to the bone, and a breathless silence hangs while they all wait to see how much blood will spill. Tynan steps out of the action to complain, acidly and expositionally, about cheap theatrical devices like expositional dialogue and direct address—and it’s all as clever and lively and touching as you want a comedy about wounded, flailing geniuses to be.