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THEATER | REVIEW

Man of Myth

Show tries to sift lies from truth about Davy Crockett.

May 29, 1997|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Davy Crockett appealed to Mark Twain, but it probably wasn't just Crockett's droll--though somewhat obscure--autobiography that Twain found compelling. Twain's writings obsessed on the tall tale, where man ended and myth began. And Crockett's whole career, it seemed, was a crazy welter of myth and fact, part Paul Bunyan-type, part actual frontiersman and politico.

The irony of "Crockett, by Himself," a stage adaptation of Crockett's early 19th century writings at the Two Roads Theatre, is that it seeks to sift the lies out of Crockett's life story. But solo actor Lane Davies' winning, understated and even chummy portrayal of the woodsman-turned-politician-turned-hero cranks up the legend all the more.

Adapter-director John Slade's choice of material lays out a clear chronology designed to set the record straight. But Crockett's colorful prose and Davies' virile smoothness remind us why a straight record isn't nearly as interesting as a good story. Davies' direct address is inviting, but his facial reactions and timing of lines tend to draw us into the events he's describing. And if Crockett exaggerates a bit himself, well, that's just fine.

(It would be nice if Mike Roehr's modest log cabin set had a roaring fire in the fireplace to complete the effect of this storytelling.)

In retrospect, what's funny about "Crockett, By Himself" is that our hero's account was prompted by badly written myths about him. Some hack, it seems, claimed that Crockett was "half-horse, half-alligator," which was the last straw as far as this coonskin-capped pioneer was concerned. This play suggests that celebrities responded to calumnies with books long before the 1990s.

The text relates the rise of an independent-minded boy who would go off on his own for years at a stretch, to an Indian-fighting frontiersman who found an ally in Andrew Jackson, to a reluctant and finally undone politician. It also reveals a man who easily displays vulnerability (the right words to a girl he wants to court stick in his throat "like a cold potato"), and who just as easily ignores his own contradictory views of Native Americans.

The play's limitation is that although Slade is the editor, Crockett is the writer. A good one, a funny one, but so unreflective that the material is screaming out for a playwright's intervention. There's a more considerable play here itching to get out, but since American playwrights seem as determined to ignore their history as Americans in general do, "Crockett, By Himself" may be the best we'll have for the time being.

BE THERE

"Crockett, By Himself" at the Two Roads Theatre, 4348 Tujunga Ave., Studio City. 8 p.m. Saturdays. Ends June 21. $16. (818) 766-9381.

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