Writers’ Theatre Chicago

By Justin Hayford

It’s only a matter of time before Writers’ Theatre Chicago, perhaps the only Equity company to have spent its first five years in the back room of a bookstore, finds a real theater. Given the demand for their work–they have over 2,000 subscribers and a house that seats 50–a move is inevitable. Certainly artistic director Michael Halberstam and his directors and designers need a larger space to fully express their vision. And a real backstage would make the actors’ lives more bearable; now they spend intermission hiding behind curtains strung up in the bookstore, where they can’t help but overhear the audience discussing their performances.

But all progress comes at a cost. The thrill of makeshift theater–its hominess, ingenuity, and lack of pretension–is difficult to duplicate in a “legitimate” space. And if Writers’ Theatre’s current production of Austin Pendleton’s Booth were performed in even a smallish 150-seat theater, audiences would lose a rare opportunity to spend two hours within ten feet of Pendleton and Scott Parkinson, two of the finest actors you could ever hope to see.

True, Pendleton’s drama about the fall of 19th-century tragedian Junius Brutus Booth (Pendleton) and the rise of his son Edwin (Parkinson) has a sweeping grandiloquence that’s somewhat muted in this small space. American theater in the mid-19th century was a raucous affair known for its flamboyant actors and highly vocal audiences. Booth–like his chief rival, Edmund Kean, back in his native England–championed a new, naturalistic style of acting that emphasized brutal, naked emotions. Although diminutive in stature–one of Booth’s contemporaries described him as “a small man that I took to be a well-grown boy of about 16”–the actor was renowned for his ferocious portrayals of Richard III and King Lear, as well as his propensity to hurl invective at audiences he didn’t like.

Booth was also a notorious drunk, and after two of his children died in the late 1820s his outrageous antics increased. Onstage at the Tremont Theater in Boston he shouted, “I can’t read! I’m a charity boy! Take me to the lunatic asylum!” Hurrying offstage, he reportedly stripped off his clothes and walked to Providence. Soon after, when he was scheduled to appear in The Merchant of Venice in New York, he disappeared from his dressing room and was found in his Shylock costume battling a blaze with some local firemen. After he didn’t show up for a performance in Annapolis, a friend discovered him on the sloop he’d sailed in on, holding a pistol to the captain’s head and forcing him to drink Epsom salts.

In his many years on the road Booth was usually accompanied by a family member: first Mary Ann, the woman with whom he lived and who bore him ten children (he’d abandoned his legal wife in England), and later his sons June and Richard. But in 1847 his introverted 13-year-old son, Edwin, was given the job, principally because he was uniquely successful in keeping Booth away from the bottle. (Edwin’s success was sporadic, however; on one occasion, when he’d locked his father in his hotel room, Booth bribed a bellboy to bring up some mint juleps, which he drank through the keyhole with a straw.)

Beginning his play on the day when Booth decides to make Edwin his companion, Pendleton charts their reversals of fortune; by the end, the once awkward, unassuming Edwin is poised to become the greatest actor of his generation while his father is a washed-up hack. Pendleton condenses several years into a handful of efficient, emotionally intricate scenes, most of them focused on Booth’s erratic, semidelusional behavior and on Edwin’s efforts to become his own man. Though much of the play is set in cramped backstage quarters that suggest a certain intimacy, even claustrophobia, the play’s elevated language and heightened action give Booth a grand scope. This father and son have a great showdown in nearly every scene, and it’s a sign of Pendleton’s skill as a dramatist that their explosive conflicts never seem forced or redundant.

Director David Cromer takes every opportunity to shrink this tale to life-size. Despite what the script might suggest, Pendleton never plays Booth as an orotund tyrant bounding around the stage, instead emphasizing the man’s dissipation and vulnerability. Booth appears at the beginning of the play a gentle, ruined figure, sitting in his backyard late one night still in his Lear costume, lamenting the fact he’s playing sanitized Shakespeare (Lear recovers, Cordelia gets married) for lowbrow audiences who “lack wonder.” With barely enough energy to sit upright, he calmly tries to coax the skittish Edwin out of the shadows in order to forge some kind of bond with the boy he hardly knows. As the play progresses, Booth is by turns impulsive, explosive, and overbearing–all in an effort to teach his son to live and act “with size.”

At least during the first act, however, Booth is never a threat, making his supposed stranglehold over his family and theater company difficult to understand. This scaling down of the character also compromises much of the comedy in the production’s first half. On the page Booth is somewhat ridiculous, carried away again and again by his sense of his own importance. But onstage Booth is more pathetic than ridiculous: as he sits in the half-light of the opening scene he seems a purely tragic figure, doomed even before the play has gotten under way. And he remains pitiable throughout the first act.

But after intermission the play becomes more volatile (the change was so marked on the night I attended, I wondered if the first act hadn’t simply been botched). Booth is attempting to rehearse his son in a supporting role in Richard III, Edwin’s first real part. It’s also his first open rebellion against his father: Edwin struggles to invent an even more naturalistic style, actually addressing the bit players onstage–Booth always shoved them far upstage and turned his back on them so they couldn’t draw focus. For the first time Booth is at once ludicrous and terrifying. And suddenly the play’s comedy is razor sharp.

With this change Pendleton and Parkinson become mesmerizing. Just as he did in Steppenwolf’s Valparaiso, Pendleton uses a frank, candid style of acting to mask his character’s deep, ultimately mysterious inner life. Tiny gestures and simple statements resonate because he seems to be allowing only a tenth of what’s going on in his head to emerge. For all of Booth’s hysterical displays, he remains fundamentally unreadable–which explains why Edwin fights like mad for a glimpse into his father’s imagination.

Parkinson once again proves there’s no better actor in town. His transformation from innocent teenager to self-destructive adult is so convincing it’s difficult to believe the same actor is portraying him. In each new scene he subtly recasts Edwin, as though the character had lived a few months or years in his ten-second absence from the stage. Although the changes in Parkinson’s voice and physicality are barely perceptible, each time they send the play on a new trajectory.

Ultimately, the thrill of Booth is simply watching these two actors lock into each other. And that’s saying quite a bit given the power and intelligence of Pendleton’s writing. This revision of his 1991 script is far from perfect: Booth’s relationships with other family members are not fully developed, undermining the betrayal of his family in the climactic scene. But the play provides the kind of acting challenges few contemporary playwrights can muster: although Booth and Edwin begin as polar opposites, the dichotomy never feels schematic, and the changes in their relationship are always intriguing. The dynamic between the two men shifts a good dozen times in each scene, and that instability gives the play its palpable urgency, turning what might have been a quaint slice of American theater history into something that feels like real life.