Orson Welles was 25 when he made the greatest movie ever made, and Hollywood never forgave him for it. Kenneth Tynan was a gawky 15 in Birmingham, England, when he first saw what he immediately recognized as the greatest movie that would ever be made, and from that point to the end of his own foreshortened life at 53, compulsive smoker Tynan, the most penetrating drama critic of his generation, never forgave Welles for walking out on or otherwise bitching up every other Orsonian cinematic project in the 20 years that followed "Citizen Kane."
Austin Pendleton was 29 when, in 1969, he spent "a very concentrated two weeks" with a wittily bitter Orson Welles during the shooting of “Catch-22,” a film in which, as an Air Force general and his son-in-law aide, they share a number of scenes. But that is not why Pendleton wrote Orson's Shadow, which brings Welles and Tynan together with Laurence Olivier and Olivier's wives Vivien Leigh and Joan Plowright in a brilliantly clever serious comedy at the Barrow Street Theatre.
He wrote it because his friend Judith Auberjonois, the wife of actor René Auberjonois, asked him to.
"She invited me to breakfast at their house in Los Angeles, and during breakfast she said: 'Why don't you write a play about when Orson Welles directed Laurence Olivier in Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros?' All she knew was that Orson had been edged out by Olivier. The idea was for René to be Olivier and Alfred Molina to be Orson. My first instinct was to say no. How do you write a play like that?" But Pendleton started reading up on Olivier and Welles, and the more he read, the more Kenneth Tynan — "who was obsessed with both those guys" — entered the picture. What also became clear was that "when Olivier forced Orson out of directing Rhinoceros, it was just when he was leaving Vivien Leigh. Olivier was very frightened of being around people who were self-destructive, like Vivien and Orson."
In the end, the play that Pendleton wrote — "three years of good, hard work" — was not really the play Judith Auberjonois had in mind, and it also turned out that René Auberjonois had never really wanted to portray Olivier. "I said, 'I've had you in mind for three years.' René said, 'Well, I didn't want to tell anybody. Would you want to do it?'"
The people who are doing it — here as in its premiere in Chicago — are the Steppenwolf actors Tracy Letts (Tynan), Jeff Still (Welles), John Judd (Olivier), Susan Bennett (Plowright), Lee Roy Rogers (Leigh) and Ian Westerfer (Sean, a stagehand). Director David Cromer has, says playwright Pendleton, "basically cast it emotionally — actors who could understand the people they're playing while not openly and flagrantly violating the way they looked."
Oh, Larry, is that girl supposed to be me? Or that fellow you?
No, no, Viv. But this is theatre, you know. Just for a moment, my darling, let us suspend our disbelief.