"Bitter Bierce: Or the Friction We Call Grief," a solo show at the Zephyr about the life and career of unjustly neglected literary genius Ambrose Bierce, is a happy marriage of performance and text that leaves us weeping at the church.
Call this a love match. A Bottom's Dream production, playing in repertory with "Miss Margarida's Way," the show is reminiscent of "Mark Twain Tonight" -- with acid splashed in its face. Playwright Mac Wellman, who received an Obie award for lifetime achievement in 2003, has sampled freely from Bierce's writings in his free-flowing, intellectually dazzling bio-drama, while John Billingsley, under the astute direction of James Martin, couches that famously irascible character in a context of humor and mounting poignancy. It is an extraordinary performance, a heaven-sent opportunity to see a gifted actor at the peak of his craft.
Famed for his eldritch tales of hauntings and horror, Bierce picked up where Poe left off, but with a difference -- namely, a late-breaking plot twist that was to become the stock in trade of writers such as O. Henry and Saki. Almost preternaturally prolific, Bierce was also an influential critic and newspaper columnist, as well as a poet, political activist and veteran soldier for whom the Civil War was a watershed, influencing all later work. His caustic diatribes earned him the appellation "Bitter Bierce" from disgruntled peers.
However, as Wellman's show makes clear, Bierce was also laceratingly funny, an epigrammist of the first water who remained heroically mordant in the face of great personal tragedy -- the untimely deaths of both of his sons.
Susan Gratch's spare set, Trevor Norton's subtle lighting and Michael Roth's mood-setting original music are fittingly unobtrusive. The focus of the evening is Billingsley, whose swaggering, staggering turn is mesmerizing. Intense and precisely mannered, he jerks around the stage like a mortally wounded man in his final paroxysms, tossing off bitter barbs to the last gasp.
'Bitter Bierce: Or the Friction We Call Grief'
Where: Zephyr Theater, 7456 Melrose Ave., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. July 17, 24, 29 and 30, and Aug. 7, 12 and 13; 7 p.m. Sundays, July 18, 25,
Ends: Aug. 13
Contact: (323) 860-9860
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes