Austin Pendleton's "Orson's Shadow" is a meditation on the possible clash of five legendary egos. Matt Shakman sensitively directs this exquisite production at the Black Dahlia Theatre.
Based on the very real and disastrous association between Orson Welles (Robert Machray) and Laurence Olivier (Jeff Sugarman), Pendleton's plot has New Yorker critic Kenneth Tynan (Andrew Ableson), bringing his idol Welles and Olivier together.
Hired by Olivier to direct Olivier and his lover, Joan Plowright (Geraldine Hughes), in Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros," Welles finds his efforts sabotaged by the actor. At the same time, Welles neglects his concerns in Hollywood, and Olivier's wife, Vivian Leigh (Dreya Weber), flits nervously in the background as Olivier gets the courage to divorce her.
On Kelly Hanson's simple white and black set, with mirrors suspended behind translucent curtains, right and wrong are obscured. All the players, save the lowly stagehand Sean (Steven Klein), have fatal flaws that darken their talents.
Machray is a sweaty, exasperated Welles, who finds hope turning into despair. Sugarman's Olivier isn't cunning, but covers his fear with cheerful acts of micro-management. Weber's Leigh quivers with anxiety and brittle dignity, in deep contrast to the quiet determination of Hughes' Plowright.
The shadows are many, and Shakman gives them tenuous form. Welles is haunted by his youthful success, which overshadows his later work. But Welles' "Citizen Kane" haunts the other characters who draw inspiration even as they watch Welles' early promise being extinguished. No heroes here, but variations on tortured genius.
* "Orson's Shadow," Black Dahlia Theatre, 5453 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; this Sunday, 7 p.m. Ends May 12. $15. (323) 525-0070. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.