THE DRESSER, Apple Tree Theatre. Ronald Harwood's 1980 comedy-drama honors the great old actor-managers of World War II-era English theater--and the overworked "little people" who made the stars shine. Very wittily written and keenly observed (Harwood himself was a backstage assistant to Shakespearean legend Sir Donald Wolfit), it portrays the final burst of glory of an aging actor known as Sir (ironic, considering his resentment over not receiving a knighthood) as he struggles through one last Lear, even as the Nazis' blitzkrieg bombs make performing literally a life-and-death matter. Pushing the old man forward is his dresser, Norman, who tends to Sir's psyche as much as his costumes--and whose life is defined by his devotion to his master's career.
Funny and touching in its examination of the characters' heroism and foolishness, Harwood's play is a shrewd actors' vehicle, and director Mark E. Lococo's lead casting is nearly perfect. Welsh actor Nicholas Rudall is richly authentic as the ravaged Sir, while Ross Lehman as neurotic Norman, the Fool to Sir's offstage Lear, makes every fussy, effeminate tic count. The only misstep is Lehman's weepy last scene--it's believably played but because it overstates a moment that should be treated with enigmatic restraint, the effect is less moving.