If you are hungry to see some fine, taut, intelligent acting, get over to the Matrix Theatre, where Ian McShane and a well-matched Actors For Themselves company are providing a first-rate revival of John Osborne's "Inadmissable Evidence" (1965).
McShane was quoted in Saturday's Times about the need for the actor to do more than reflect his character. He should also illumine his character. When playing a character as disagreeable as Osborne's Bill Maitland, there must be a temptation to judge him as well. Bill really is a bit of a cad.
But McShane plays it down the middle. You could leave this performance detesting Maitland, or identifying with him, or pitying him. It would depend on where you are in your own life. McShane simply puts his man on the stand and lets him speak.
Passionately. That's why Bill doesn't bore us, for all his conceit. Osborne and McShane make Maitland a fascinating case, not so much for his murky midlife crisis (nothing new there) but for the commitment with which he is acting it out.
Not only is he fearsomely articulate as he accuses himself before his own imagined jury (the play is laid partly in Bill's mind, partly in his law office), his every action seems to be a plea for punishment and forgiveness. This is a man who finds the human race, including himself, absolutely despicable. Yet he still craves love: unconditioned, accepting, redeeming.
By the end of the play Bill has succeeded in driving off everybody who might love him, including his teen-age daughter, and scaring off everybody who works for him. Sitting in his law office at the start of another god-awful day, he probably hasn't quite reached the end of his mendacity. But it's coming. Whether he commits suicide or goes off to join the Trappists, the boil has got to burst.
His only untrue self-accusation is that of mediocrity. This is a man of extremes (including an extreme coldness) and McShane understands both his need to dump his self-loathing on the people around him and his unacknowledged need to be brought up short, a kindness that nobody in his life quite has the guts to perform. He's like a Kate without a Petrucchio.
The actors surrounding McShane have less to do. But under the direction of Kristoffer Siegel-Tabori, each provides as full an account of his character's identity as the star. Duncan Ross, for example, makes it clear that Maitland's poker-faced right-hand man puts up with his abuse for some very good reason of his own, totally apart from personal affection; we don't need to know the exact reason to see that it's there.
Peter Mitchel makes the youngest man in the office a cautious type who may be the plodder that Maitland thinks, but may also be a Maitland in embryo, once he's finally forgotten Mum and the lessons learned back home. Robin Pearson Rose is the secretary who has learned too many lessons from Maitland, and Jenny Wright is the new girl, who may have some to teach him.
Jeanne Ruskin plays Maitland's mistress with a coolness clearly based in self-protection and Kate Fitzmaurice plays a client who both wants to leave her husband and to make him feel like more of a man, one of the paradoxes that Maitland is sick of dealing with in his profession.
Fitzmaurice, Wright and Mitchel also play other roles, and well, but I wish that director Tabori had violated Osborne's wishes here and found separate actors for these parts. This would have added to the richness of the show, without necessarily subtracting from its quasi-hallucinatory air. One can see many faces in a dream.
A. Clark Duncan's set appears to be a tailored lawyer's office, but with one brilliant light stroke (Barbara Ling did the lighting) we see a huge dump of law briefs behind it, as messy as Maitland's increasingly disturbed mind. The effect seems less brilliant each time it's used, but carping at this "Inadmissable Evidence" would be ungrateful. It is dead-accurate theater.
John Osborne's play, presented by Actors For Themselves at the Matrix Theatre. Producer Joseph Stern. Director Kristoffer Siegel-Tabori. Setting A. Clark Duncan. Lighting Barbara Ling. Costumes Csilla Marki. Original music Chuck Estes. Sound David Porter. Stage manager Gilpin Netburn. Production coordinator Janet Mitsui. Musicians John Johnson, Martin Tardif, Edward D'Angelo, Chuck Estes. With Ian McShane, Kate Fitzmaurice, Bruce Gray, Peter Mitchel, Robin Pearson Rose, Duncan Ross, Jeanne Ruskin, Jenny Wright. Plays Wed.-Sun. at 8 p.m. Closes March 24. 7657 Melrose Ave. 852-1445.