Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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Among the trickier, but also potentially more interesting one-person shows are those which involve biography. Creating someone everyone wishes they had met can be immensely satisfying for both actor and audience, and historically illuminating to boot. Take, as the prime example, Hal Holbrook’s “Mark Twain Tonight” which utilizes Twain’s own writings and speeches to recreate an evening with the quintessential American author.
The trick is having enough to say, saying it as the historical personage would have, and creating enough “business” while in front of people to keep the thing from becoming a costumed lecture. All of this should be taken into account by the creators of the rather self-consciously titled “The Unauthorized Afterlife of Eugene O’Neill,” now at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Playhouse grad Jim Cady is both author and star of this piece, in which an ethereal O’Neill speaks to us of his life from a position similar to Marley’s Ghost of Dickens fame. He is out to crow a bit about how he changed literature, and then speak of the dysfunctional and depressive family from which his creativity was born. A litany of despair, addiction, suicide and neglect fill the evening. If only it were said with the eloquence of O’Neill.
Except for segments all but quoted from O’Neill’s own work, the Cady script tends to float into the simplistic and the cliché. For example, a great man of letters would not, more than once, refer to death as a “shuffle off to Buffalo.” At least, he wouldn’t in public. And, with the exception of some eventually symbolic, very large mums, there is nothing on the stage for him to work with, giving him too little to do.
Even the set, such as it is, proves defeating. What should be a desk and chair is a desk and box – a box over which the actor trips more than once.
This is not to say that the material isn’t interesting. The research into O’Neill’s personal story proves factually accurate, and sometimes quite moving. Still, the end result, under director Brian Hansen, is static. The man stands and talks much of the time. One hates being enervated by such a wrenching tale.
It reminds me of the standard poet’s critique: “don’t tell me, show me.” How could we see, through the eyes of this famous man, what it was like to decide not to go to the funeral which followed the suicide of his own brother, or his own son? Don’t tell how stunning it was to discover your own mother shooting morphine. Show what it felt like. Use quotes from the autobiographical “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” if you have to – they reveal what that was like.
Still, Cady does look the part, and the information gives an underlay to this incredible writer, whose plays changed the structure of American drama even as they pushed to the fore (as did Miller and Williams, alongside him) the dilemma of the everyman. It’s just good enough, though, that it should by rights be better.
What: “The Unauthorized Afterlife of Eugene O’Neill” When: Through September 25, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday Where: The Carrie Hamilton Theatre, upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $30 general, $15 students with ID Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org