“Cleo” at Alley Theatre

Last Saturday, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Alley Theatre’s World Premiere of Cleo, by Austin writer Lawrence Wright.

I’m a subscriber, but I don’t normally schedule my tickets for Saturday. So I was delightfully surprised to find I had been given me a seat dead center in the Hubbard Theatre. Standing to allow people through to sit next to me, I realized they were talking to a couple in front of us, which turned out to be Lawrence Wright and his wife.

A Pulitzer-Prize winning author, he is also a screenwriter, television producer, and sometimes playwright. His six previous plays all have a historical/political bent and have been produced by Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.; the Old Globe in San Diego; off-Broadway and  the Public Theater in New York; and as far away as the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv.

It is tempting to think of Cleo as something completely outside his usual subject-matter, which often deals with the Middle East. But the play is about a real-life historic and very scandalous love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the filming of Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, a hugely expensive movie about the most famous Egyptian queen of all time. The professional, political, and sexual wrangling on and off screen documented in the play is not that different from the politics of world ideologies.

I am old enough to remember some of the scandalous headlines that my mother tried to shield me from, while gorging on the details herself. I am an avid movie fan, currently teaching Film Appreciation classes. I also know enough about the body of work between Taylor, Burton and Rex Harrison, and Liz’s personal tragedies and many marriages to have had a preconceived notion of what the play was about. I must say, I was delightfully validated and surprised.

Wright has taken the stuff of tabloids and woven in the tragic death of Liz’s great love Mike Todd, her subsequent co-opting of her friend Debbie Reynolds’ husband Eddie Fisher, and her sometimes pathetic need for validation as a serious actress, to paint a vivid and riveting picture of a film icon we all think we know. We meet her after these events and as she sets out on arguably the most ambitious film of her career, supported by the overly protective Fisher and Joe Mankiewicz, the gentle and caring director.  For Mankiewicz, this is the grandest project of his illustrious career (only a few years after being blacklisted in Hollywood) and he must juggle not only the needs of his three very different stars, but Fisher’s as well.

Against the politics of a dying studio system, a failing marriage, and an apocalyptic sexual attraction, Wright (under the brilliant direction of Bob Balaban) manages to give us a truly human and heartbreaking tale of two beautifully talented and self-destructive people.

Liz, a bona fide star since she was child, is terrified to be playing opposite two legitimate actors: Rex Harrison, the pompous aging film star, and Richard Burton the scrappy, alcoholic Welshman.  She fully expects to be taken to school by these celebrated stage actors. Instead, she becomes the object of a ridiculous bet based on sexual conquest. The fact that Harrison is condescendingly oblivious to how ridiculous his aspirations are makes him comic relief.

Three major supporting characters bring warmth and humor to the play. Mark Capri plays Harrison with all the dignity and ego of an aging icon, who cannot see that his character of Caesar is not the star of the film. Brian Dykstra, as Joe Mankiewicz, is a teddy bear of a man, balancing all these egos and pyrotechnics with a humanity that is reaffirming. Adam Gibbs plays Eddie Fisher, not as the smooth and fashionable crooner we remember from photos and album covers, but as a swaggering street-wise Rat Pack wannabe. Some of that personae is warranted from the often pandering and constantly needy character Wright has written. But no effort is made to make Gibbs look or speak like Fisher. It is only when he starts to sing (and sell) some of Fisher’s ballads that we finally understand why he was the inevitable casting choice from the Alley Company.

Lisa Birnbaum seems to be channeling Taylor on the stage. Make-up and costumes play their part, but she genuinely looks and behaves like Liz Taylor, alternately sniveling and needy, and then the diva star. Her postures and hand gestures are not imitations of Liz, but the embodiment. Her voice captures the same lilt and inflections that made Liz distinctive, without the irritating tendency toward shrillness. Her performance rings so true, that after the first few scenes I stopped thinking of her as anyone but Liz.

Richard Short plays Richard Burton. We see a dissipated, raunchy, alcoholic street kid who has parlayed his very real acting talent into a way to live a wanton and careless life. Forever straying from his long-suffering wife, but firm in the belief that she will never leave him for his philandering. What Wright makes clear in the text is that Burton lusts for Liz, like any other conquest, but never intends to fall victim to that passion. What we fail to get from Short’s portrayal of Richard Burton is the tragic waste of a brilliant actor’s gifts and his self-loathing that drives him to try and destroy everything good in himself and in this new and fragile relationship. We get a lusty, gorgeous hunk, but not the brilliant Shakespearean actor. He plays the doomed relationship and not the character traits that will make it so.

In their scenes together, Short and Birnbaum bring real fire and passion to the stage. The difference between their performances can be summed up in one observation. Birnbaum is always generous in her playing, and not afraid to turn her back to the audience and let the other actor be the focus. In the pivotal climactic scene near the end when Liz is preparing to leave with her alternately rejected and retrieved husband Fisher, she is blocked to spend much of the scene on steps with her back to us. This is Short’s scene, where he must break through the barriers and try to make her understand, and finally admit that he loves her, very much against his will. He should be trying to make her turn around and look at him. Instead, he faces downstage toward the audience doing what I call ‘TV acting’. It is possible that director Bob Balaban blocked the scene this way. But considering the effectiveness of the visual pictures throughout, I find that hard to believe. It felt more like an actor trying to get as much mileage as possible out of his big scene.

Nevertheless, this is a rousing success and no doubt meant for greater glory in New York. I congratulated the glowing Mr. Wright, who very kindly used his own pen to sign my program.

 

 

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