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A Man for All Seasons

Rosebud doesn’t quite get all of Orson Welles, but then who could? Plus: A proposal for a new Tony category.

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Rosebud attempts to do the weird, the impossible, the preposterous: In that sense, at least, it’s true to its subject. Before Citizen Kane and his other achievements in film, and long before the drunken on-set antics that have become so popular lately on YouTube, Orson Welles was the prodigal visionary of American theater, making the cover of Time at 23. Now the Welsh playwright Mark Jenkins has written a solo show about him, sending an actor up there to re-create that outsize voice and persona. Does he pull it off? Not a chance. Still, it’s fun to see the big man back where he belongs.

“I was struck by lightning morning, noon, and night,” says Welles of his youthful exploits, speaking, as usual, straight from the ego. Jenkins marches Orson through a recital of his triumphs: stage, radio, film. This Welles is hard on himself now and then, but the account is still wildly self-serving. Consider his tale of how RKO mangled The Magnificent Ambersons while he was in Brazil. Paranoia and overdeveloped sense of victimhood—check; insatiable taste for booze, speed, and nubile natives—not a whisper.

Christian McKay shows guts, attempting this role despite lacking the proper, well, guts. He’s not fat: In black vest and pants, he’s barely ovoid. His nose is petite, but not quite the retroussé number that made Welles reach for so many fakes, and while his voice may rumble as if in a wooden cask, only rarely does it boom as if in a Wellesian vat. Still, if you see him in profile, where his cheekbone curves just so, or happen to catch his eyebrows inch up—Welles’s way of signaling “Are you believing this?”—he just might be Orson.

Jenkins doesn’t do McKay any favors by forcing him to re-create some of Welles’s most famous lines, like the cuckoo-clock speech from The Third Man. He fares better when director Josh Richards lets you watch the transformation occur. Late in the show, as McKay recites taglines from Welles’s tacky TV spots, he slips into an immense padded shirt and cape, leaving it to the audience to connect his physical and creative declines. As he dons Welles’s late-life beard, he recites Hal’s tirade against the “old fat man” Falstaff from Henry IV. It’s a kind of slow-motion magic trick. Welles, that larger-than-life magician, would have eaten it up.

My ballot for the Tony awards has arrived: What to do about Best Score? The decision isn’t who did the finest work but whose fine work counts the most. Duncan Sheik wrote the year’s best music (Spring Awakening), but Michael Korie wrote the best lyrics (Grey Gardens). By clumping words and tunes in one category this way, the Tony people force voters into a decision they shouldn’t have to make.

Good music and good lyrics tend to go hand-in-hand, of course, sometimes coming from a single writer. (When the Tony committee tried separating the awards in 1971, Sondheim won both, for Company.) But it’s telling that the Drama Desks, which divide the categories, often honor a composer and a lyricist from different shows—twice in the past five years alone. That’s fairer, particularly to the guy writing the words. Thanks to the old bias toward a score that sends you out humming the tunes, I suspect a good lyricist will lose to a good composer any day.

Even better, splitting the categories would force Tony voters (and the people who talk about Tony voters) to pay more attention to lyric craft, the least understood part of musicals. The only treatment of lyrics I’ve seen this award season is a Theatermania.com column in which Peter Filichia scoured the Spring Awakening CD booklet for errant rhymes (“I found 59 of them. 59!”). Lyric-writing deserves better than mere number-crunching. Until the Tonys elevate its profile, people who ought to win are sure to lose, no matter how we vote.

Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles
By Mark Jenkins. Brits Off Broadway Festival, 59E59 Theaters. Through June 10.


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