at Royal George Theatre Center's Gallery
Marrowbones Theatre Company
at the Chicago Dramatists Workshop
Don Fiedler is doing the wrong one-man show. He should be impersonating Lyndon B. Johnson in Laurence Luckinbill's LBJ. With his down-turned mouth flanked by jowls, he bears a striking resemblance to the former president, and when he puts on a pair of glasses the resemblance becomes downright uncanny--he even has slightly oversized ears that bring to mind the fleshy sails attached to LBJ's head. He also speaks with a slightly nasal twang that could easily be shaped into a Texas drawl. And since he's not a professional actor (he's a lawyer), Fiedler always seems to be acting, which is just how Johnson came across.
Unfortunately, Fiedler is playing Clarence Darrow in the one-man show about the famous attorney written by David W. Rintels. If you can imagine how incongruous LBJ would look trying to be wry, witty, and wise, you have some idea of how wrong Fiedler is for this role.
Rintels adapted this monologue from the novel Clarence Darrow for the Defense by Irving Stone, who specialized in writing fictionalized biographies of famous people (Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy, Sigmund Freud in The Passions of the Mind). In writing these books, Stone applied his novelist's imagination to the facts of the famous person's life, producing narratives that paid more allegiance to drama than to history.
The Clarence Darrow who emerges from Rintels's adaptation is a homespun hero who embodies virtues widely admired by Americans--stubborn independence, compassion for the common folk, and a keen intelligence well concealed by modesty and self-deprecating humor. And this version of Clarence Darrow addresses the audience directly as he recounts the highlights of his career from a courtroom, law office, or cozy study. He recalls defending Eugene V. Debs in 1894, after Debs was charged with the murder of seven members of the railway workers' union--men who had been shot to death by government troops trying to suppress a strike. And defending Big Bill Haywood, a union man accused of planting the bomb that killed the governor of Idaho (which Haywood didn't do). And defending the McNamara brothers, who were accused of bombing the Los Angeles Times's printing plant and killing 20 workers (which they did do).
Fiedler emphasizes the country bumpkin in Darrow and downplays his keen intelligence and passion. When Henry Fonda did this play, he wisely added a shot of vinegar to his portrayal, which allowed Darrow's impatience and indignation to show through more clearly.
Fortunately, Clarence Darrow is a sturdy, simple play, so Fiedler's performance, even though off the mark, does not totally spoil the anecdotes. Still, this production demonstrates that a one-person show requires a virtuoso performance or it goes flat in a hurry, reducing a drama to an illustrated history lecture.
Little Guys is a one-man show of a different sort. Though he's the only person who appears onstage, Richard Rand plays eight characters. He starts out as David, a cabdriver with a thick Yiddish accent who wants to introduce some of the "little guys" he has encountered: "Ya know, even though he's been dead 25 years, I hear Grandpa Shlomo's words, 'Listen to the little guy. He's got something to say.'"
So with rapid onstage costume changes, Rand transforms himself from one "little guy" into another. He becomes Little Devil, a young teen who has just met Bruce Springsteen in the bathroom of a Mobil station (which allows Rand to lip-synch the entire song "Born to Run"). Harry Boddinski is an old man who misses his wife, Mike the Gambler is trying to persuade his cousin to lend him several thousand dollars to bet on horses, and Howie the Chiropodist is trying to persuade his girlfriend to marry him.
And so it goes. Rand is a skillful actor. As Whitewalls, the hotheaded Italian intent on protecting his Cadillac, Rand is all strut and pose. As a little boy who discovers his sister is being sexually abused by their father, Rand gives a poignant performance.
The problem is that Rand and his coauthor, William Lampert, haven't created interesting characters. Instead they've created cartoons--not caricatures, which are sly exaggerations of reality, but crude, silly renderings of human types. Set designer Carlos Hay Uribe must have recognized this--the backdrop he painted is a cartoon cityscape full of buildings that are bent like rubber. When Rand's characters turn toward the backdrop as if they're going to walk down the street that stretches to the horizon, they look like 'toons returning to Toontown.
Rand has tried to create the kind of solo performance done so brilliantly by Eric Bogosian and Lily Tomlin. They're solid actors too, but they perform well-written material. Bogosian, like a great photographer, knows how to capture the quirky essence of his characters in swift, startling snapshots. And Tomlin of course performs material written by her gifted friend Jane Wagner, author of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.
Rand and Lampert create only cozy, maudlin, sentimental versions of humanity. Even with Rand's considerable acting ability to animate them, the "little guys" in this show are just Hummel figurines for the stage.