December 5, 2011 | 10:30am
Toward the end of the drive out to the New Theatre's new location inside the Roxy Performing Arts Center in a strip mall in West Kendall, we half expected to see cow pastures crop up on either side of the road. Dramatic? Yes. But hell, we're writers, and if there's anything we took away from the theatre's world premiere production of Twain and Shaw Do Lunch, a play based on the real-life meeting of two great literary artists, it's that writers are melodramatic, grandiose egotists. In other words, we can't help it.
Once we found a parking spot (we were careful not to take one of the spaces marked "Apple China Buffet Only"), we stepped into the lobby and blinked a few times. Children wearing leotards and hopeful facial expressions unique to the theatrically inclined cluttered the entranceway. The Roxy is normally a children's dance, acting, and voice lesson center, and for the Sunday matinee performance, the partner enterprise was in full swing. This offered a sharp contrast to the 60-something set by whom we were accustomed to being surrounded at the New Theatre's old headquarters on Laguna Street.
Twain and Shaw
is put on in one of the
theaters toward the back of the building. The seating is a bit more
plentiful than it was at the troupe's former home, and the stage larger.
It was soon occupied by a rotund gentleman -- our George Bernard Shaw,
played by Stephen Neal. Neal quickly paints Shaw as a jolly, clumsy,
seemingly helpless fellow with impeccably dorky enunciation and boyish
calf-hugging knickers. He's joined by his wife Charlotte, portrayed by
actress Pilar Uribe as a witty, competent matriarch who regards her
husband with a mixture of admiration and amusement that gets lighter on
admiration as the play goes on.
At the outset, the pair's chemistry felt frayed. Both actors tripped repeatedly on their lines, giving the opening minutes a sort of nervous self-consciousness. The scene was supposed to have an air of tension -- their dialog was about Erica May Cotterill, a "passionate" (read: obsessive) young female writer with whom Shaw had exchanged suggestive letters -- but their stumbling over words was definitely not deliberate.
Cotterill had taken Shaw's advice to come to London as a personal invitation, and had arrived determined to have him for herself. In Los Angeles playwright Chamber Stevens' story, Cotterill lands in the city on the same day that Twain is invited to the Shaws' for lunch, making for a play rich in slapstick secrecy as the couple tries to pretend everything is normal. In a talk-back at the end of the performance, though, Stevens admitted that Cotterill had actually arrived the day before the meeting of the literary minds. The playwright took artistic license and rearranged history in the interest of a juicier story.
When Mark Twain (Bill Schwartz) entered the set, we started to feel like we could finally settle into the parlor along with the players. Schwartz played old salty dog Twain with a quiet hilarity that had us laughing embarrassingly loudly in the sparsely populated audience. It was clear from the moment the character started to speak which literary icon our playwright loved best: each of Twain's lines was sharper and wittier than the last, and his hard-drinking, "cee-gar" smoking, meat- and capitalism-loving manliness was unequivocally more attractive to both the audience and our pants-wearing Mrs. Shaw than was Shaw's socialist, teetotaling, vegetarian pansy-ness. Even Twain's huge financial losses came off as cool battle scars from a life of sensuous living and risk-taking, rather than embarrassing imprudent decision-making.
It was unclear whether Scwhartz had calculatedly played the aging Twain with a sort of tired jadedness, or whether the actor was really just tired (he did, after all, just finish playing a lead role in Zoetic Stage's Captiva at the Arsht Center). Regardless, his performance worked marvelously. Thanks to both the character's saucy, audacious lines and the actor's flawless delivery thereof, Twain was easily the most memorable of the three characters.
After a shaky start, Uribe quickly warmed to her role, presenting to us an empowered, outspoken, and decidedly feminine first lady of literature. Though the actress was great at conveying charm and wit, her attempts at an Irish accent were all but fruitless. Most of the time we were unsure of what dialect she was going for at all. Still, she was a pleasant presence onstage, and brought a believable poise to her role while still managing to infuse it with some cheekiness and perhaps even a sliver of sexuality.
Neal did a nice job playing a benign and seemingly inane author, which is the best the script would allow him to do. It's hard to believe that the profoundly talented Shaw could have really been such a lame storyteller and such an incompetent human being as Stevens' play suggests. But keeping in mind that it's just historical fiction, we can imagine this work as a kind of live-action comic book in which the playwright (whose son's name is Twain) gets to see his favorite American author sock it to his famous British rival.
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