Review: Pride Arts Center's "His Greatness" Is, Simply, Great
Who are critics anyway? a character asks in the play “His Greatness,” written by Canadian playwright Daniel MacIver and currently playing at Pride Arts Center. Who are they to find fault, judge, complain? Later on, another character asks an even more pointed question: Why do they get to be right?
“His Greatness,” a play about an aging playwright (based on Tennessee Williams) who has long passed “his greatness,” doesn’t really care why critics get to be right. (We don’t, actually. Make up your own minds.) What it examines, most powerfully and poignantly, is the dissolution of a once-great mind, a genius who has lost his muse and is a shell of what he once was, drowning his pain in alcohol and drugs. That his latest work was panned by London critics only makes its Vancouver opening that much more important to him: it has to go well. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t go as well as this one, which is outstanding in every aspect.
Set in 1980, this cleverly written play revolves around the relationship the playwright (Danne W. Taylor) has with his long-time Assistant (Andrew Kaine Miller), who acts as Business Manager, Valet, Personal Secretary, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer (kidding, though who knows?), and, oh yes, lover. For the opening night performance, the Assistant finds the Playwright an escort in the form of a male prostitute referred to (in perfect Williams style) as Young Man (Whitman Johnson), and unknowingly invites serious conflict into their lives.
From the opening moments, the play evokes Williams at his best. Plaintive music plays, and the Assistant takes the stage alone to frame what we will see as a memory play. “I don’t have his gift, his cross to bear,” he tells us. He also doesn’t have to listen to “the voices: angels, demons” in the Playwright’s mind. When the Playwright awakens, he immediately complains of a hangover, which he refers to as “the pain in my soul.” This insistent use of elegant metaphor is as much a part of Williams’ repertoire as the Southern culture he mostly sets his work in. Indeed, Director David Zak states in his notes that he feels “this is a play Tennessee Williams might have written in a different time or place.” It does have that feel.
Like much of Williams’ work, there is a central core of painful self-denial in this play. Like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire and Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, the Playwright is completely unaware of his own flaws. He can’t see or understand what is plain to the Assistant and the audience: he is lost. When the Young Man enters his world with his trim, well-muscled physique, pleasing manner and a prostitute’s sense of flattery, the Playwright has no defenses. And when the Young Man offers to get his drugs for him (despite the fact that the Assistant has strictly forbidden them), he is putty in his hands. The old man far too easily allows himself to become caught in a trap he could have written himself.
Despite the fact that the Playwright protests that he is too old to care about the critics anymore (“There was a time I would have been fearful of the stuff in the papers”), it is clear he is concerned. When a radio reviewer interviewing him implies that his work is not “modern” enough, he gets noticeably upset. “I’m not modern? What am I now? A dinosaur?” As his most pleasant evening with the Young Man (who is exactly as unlikely for a real relationship as every other “young man” in Williams’ plays) continues, though, he lets his angst slip away, his pride preparing him for a fall.
The three actors here are all superb in their own ways. Taylor is practically channeling Tennessee Williams in a masterful performance. His eyes, sometimes dreamy, sometimes nervous, sometimes reflecting the addict’s desperation, are a gateway to his emotions, but his entire face takes part in his best moment: reading the actual reviews. It is a slow, quiet scene, and Zak wisely gives Taylor the time and space to “read” the whole review and react to it, his face an amalgam of surprise, shock, pain, anger, sadness, and about ten other emotions as well as the critics bandy about terms like “turgid” and “disingenuous” and “fiasco.” We can watch as he slowly breaks inside; it’s remarkable.
From the moment the Young Man enters the scene, Johnson makes sure that he simply oozes sex and frivolity. He is the one who is there to break the rules. He will lie, he will try to take advantage, he will insinuate himself into the Playwright’s life if he can. Johnson spends a considerable amount of time nearly naked, and he has the body for it. But it is when he is clothed that his character’s duplicity really shines through. It’s as if the raw sexual energy is all real, but most of the rest of him is a complete invention. He portrays it well.
Miller’s Assistant is the button-down member of the party. (The others refer to him as a “fuddy-duddy” and a “tight-ass.”) In his position, he has to be. It makes for a much more controlled, internalized performance than either of the others gives and creates a powerful contrast. We know he is right, and we know his is the logical perspective, though there is no denying the more fun aspects of the other ones. What impresses about Miller’s performance, then, is his ability to convey many different emotions without being overt about it. His love for the Playwright and his jealousy of the Young Man are entirely obvious, yet if you asked me to explain how he showed them I’d be hard pressed to do so: his expressions, though clear, are subtle, as befits his character.
This is a very entertaining play—I have not at all conveyed how truly funny it is—and it is also one that takes you into a world that, while invented, seems as if it could well have been real. From what we do know about Williams, this may not have been far from his life. The Playwright worries at one point here if his Assistant thinks he is losing his mind. When the Young Man calls him the smartest man he knows, he replies, “Madness is not in the brain; it’s in the blood.” Criticism may be in the brain, but being a playwright is in the blood. So is love. It’s easy to see where true greatness lies.
"His Greatness" is playing at the Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway in Chicago through November 12. Tickets are $25 and may be obtained here. Half price tickets are available. Find more information about this and other plays at theatreinchicago.com.