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Brad Fryman as Orson Welles
Photograph: Courtesy Jonathan SlaffBrad Fryman as Orson Welles

Orson's Shadow is returning to the New York stage

Austin Pendleton directs his own hit play about Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman

That faint rumbling is the sound of a giant beginning to stir from his restless slumber.

In 2005, Austin Pendleton's Orson's Shadow was the sleeper hit of the Off Broadway season, running for nearly 350 performances at the West Village's Barrow Street Theatre. The play takes a backstage look at a 1960 production of Eugène Ionesco’s antifascist allegory Rhinoceros starring Sir Laurence Olivier, who was then in the process of leaving his wife, Vivien Leigh, for the younger and more stable Joan Plowright. Directing Olivier is Orson Welles, who created Citizen Kane at the age of 25 and lived in umbrage ever after, all but banished from Hollywood circles. As the drama critic Ken Tynan observes in Pendleton's play: “Once one is called a living genius, one only exists to disappoint."

That excellent production of Orson's Shadow, directed by David Cromer, had premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre several years earlier with much of the same cast. Now, to mark the show's 25th anniversary, Pendleton is going back to the Welles to draw more drama from the story of an artist in exile: Orson's Shadow will return to New York at Theater for the New City from March 14 through March 31, in a new version directed by the playwright himself. This Shadow is cast with Brad Fryman as Welles, as well as Ryan Tramont, Patrick Hamilton, Natalie Menna, Kim Taff and Luke Hofmaier.

The 82-year-old Pendleton is a treasure of American theater whose work in multiple fields earned him a Special Citation for lifetime achievement from the New York Drama Critics' Circle in 2022. A master of dithering and shambling—the phrase "keep Austin weird" might have been invented for him—he is best known as an actor: His first Broadway role was in 1964, as Fiddler on the Roof's original Motel the tailor, and his most recent one was in 2022, as a city councilman in Tracy Letts's The Minutes. But he has also distinguished himself as a writer and director; his production of Stephen Adly Guirgis's Between Riverside and Crazy, for example, was a highlight of last year's Broadway season. He never seems to stop working, but this revival of Orson's Shadow will be the first time he has directed his own piece, which he has also revised since the original production. 

"Pendleton’s quick, literate script lets the play function initially as high backstage gossip," I wrote of the 2005 production. "But illness and insanity haunt nearly everyone onstage, and give the play a subtle but pervasive chill." At its center is the great blowfish Welles, deflated but still prickly, carrying all the weight of one who knows he's lost at shadow-boxing. He's a towering frustration of 20th-century art, and it's good to have a chance to see him again.

Orson's Shadow runs from March 14 through March 31 at Theater for the New City (155 First Ave at E 10th St). Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased here.  

Austin Pendleton and cast of Orson's Shadow
Photograph: Courtesy Jonathan SlaffAustin Pendleton and cast of Orson's Shadow

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