As I lay in bed last night, the 10pm LA Theatre Works broadcast of Austin Pendleton’s 2000 play, Orson’s Shadow came on. Recorded in 2002, the play later ran for a year or so in New York City, opening in 2005. the New York production won a passel of awards, and if I read my web-sign aright, the performer who read the Welles role for the radio play won an LA Critic’s Circle award for the role in a contemporaneous stage production. The play’s main characters are Orson Welles, Sir Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, and Vivien Liegh. The play’s initial narrator and catalyst is midcentury critic Kenneth Tynan. From the opening scene through the end of the play i was totally captivated, at first by the amusingly accurate vocal chracterization of Welles and then by the complex, witty, and sympathetic writing.
The play is set in 1960, before Oliver’s odd Oscar-winning turn in The Entertainer but after the stage production that would lead to the film and after Welles’ work on Touch of Evil. Tynan recruits Welles and then Olivier and Plowright to star in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and we get the best seat in the backstage to observe Pendleton’s sympathetic and knowledgeable visions of his lead characters. The play is hilarious and tragic and the written voices of the well-known men ring heartily true to our mediated knowledge of their speech. It was tremendously engaging and satisfied that sublimated Jones anyone with an interest in the history of 20th century media has to spend an hour or two at table with Mr. Welles in all his brilliance and idiocy.