note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
Orson Welles, director of The Cradle Will Rock … Geoffrey P. Burns
Marc Blitzstein, composer … Christopher Chew
John Houseman, producer … Robert Saoud
Jean Rosenthal, stage manager … Jennifer Valentine
Howard Da Silva, actor who plays “Larry Foreman” … Neil A. Casey
Olive Stanton, actress who plays “The Moll” … Julie Jirousek
Eva Blitzstein, Blitzstein’s wife … Julie Jirousek
Virginia Welles, Welles’ wife … Jennifer Valentine
Waitress … Julie Jirousek
There’s a dullness at the heart of Jason Sherman’s IT’S ALL TRUE, which is receiving its New England premiere over at the Lyric Stage, and it results from too much of a good thing: Mr. Sherman tells the well-known saga of John Houseman and the young Orson Welles producing Marc Blitzstein’s Depression-era opera of unions and strikes, THE CRADLE WILL ROCK, despite governmental censorship, equity boycotts, and the conflicting temperaments of the flamboyant Welles, the urbane Houseman, and the closeted Blitzstein.
Mr. Sherman knows his theatre (all the bickering and camaraderie rings true --- as when Blitzstein snaps at Welles, the overbearing director, “Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t give you the right to cut it!”) and has done his homework (all you need to know is right there before you) but by cramming in so many facts at a breakneck speed, IT’S ALL TRUE is a work that’s barren of style; more checklist than play (“Welles as Dr. Faustus?” “Check.” “Scene with Blitzstein and Wife?” “Check.” “Padlocks on the theatre?” “Check.” “Check.” “Check.”) Or, if an image will do, Mr. Sherman has nine spinning plates on sticks and is constantly rushing back and forth, spinning here, spinning there, lest one of those plates waiver and fall --- to him, all nine are important. (At least Welles doesn’t turn to Jean Rosenthal, his stage manager, and say, “Jean, baby, you’re gonna have to work the lights….”)
There are times when I wish that movies had never been born because of all the screenwriting that has steadily crept into the theatre. The very technique of playwriting has changed: look at any play of the mature Ibsen: most, if not all, of the seeds have been planted long before the curtain rises and the plot is their inevitable unfolding. Mr. Sherman, like many others of today, sows as he goes: if he lines up scenes A, B, C and D and “C” is in a different location, he will have “C” staged with characters in a blue light, waiting for “B” to end; when “C” is finished, blue those actors out and back up with the lights for “D”. Though it would mean more mouths to feed, adding two more actresses to the cast would also clear up some of TRUE’s confusion: the married Welles is directing the actress Olive --- the lights change and he suddenly takes her in his arms. Has he always lusted after her? No, the woman is now a waitress he’s been sleeping with (the actress plays both women); the lights change, and PING! she’s Olive again. In the middle of a heated debate among the men, Jean starts in on Welles --- is Welles sleeping with her, too? No, Jean is now channeling the words of Welles’ ignored wife (the actress plays both women). All of these cinematic shortcuts may save time and money, but they play havoc with the play’s overall shape as well as the audience’s nerves. What if Mr. Sherman took one, maybe two points of attack, stuck with the unities of time and space (the last few hours before the opening of THE CRADLE WILL ROCK) and select only what facts were needed? The results would be far more gripping than the current production --- maybe even fun. (Mr. Sherman does do Mr. Blitzstein a service: he makes you want to (re)examine the CRADLE itself which, though terribly dated, is as close to an American THREEPENNY OPERA as we may get.)
Kudos to Spiro Veloudos’ hardworking cast, zigzagging in and out of the kaleidoscopic plot --- among them, Geoffrey P. Burns is not so much Welles as Jackie Gleason after charm school (I can picture him yelling “POW!” to Mrs. Welles when they argue); Christopher Chew’s tormented Blitzstein is a far, moving cry from his brute in SpeakEasy’s THE WILD PARTY; and Julie Jirousek makes a warm, ordinary Olive, the Liza Doolittle to Welles’ Henry Higgins --- she almost made me forget the butterfly headdress she sported as Regan in New Rep’s KING LEAR over two years ago. Almost, that is --- some stage images remain indelible.