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THEATER REVIEW

A final year of life captured in all its drama

As a Nuremberg judge now in his twilight, Alan Mandell gives a performance for the ages in 'Trying.'

August 15, 2007|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

As Truman Capote once so memorably observed, "Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act." In the theater, that crucial third act is often a tacked-on afterthought.

Aside from the occasional Lear and Miss Daisy, you'll seldom see a senior citizen as a play's protagonist. That may be because the theater is largely the (underpaid) province of the young, those eager and energetic practitioners who burn to express themselves on the boards. Or perhaps theater audiences, particularly those of a certain age, don't like to dwell on their own encroaching mortality.

Whatever the reason, Joanna McClelland Glass goes a long way toward addressing that deficit in "Trying" at the Colony. Indeed, Glass' astringently intelligent two-person play contains the most moving dramatization of old age in memory.

In 1967, Glass became secretary to Francis Biddle, attorney general under President Franklin Roosevelt and chief American judge at the Nuremberg trials. Then 81, Biddle insisted that he was in the final year of his life -- a prognostication that proved sadly accurate.

Glass has based "Trying" on her brief but telling tenure with Biddle. Almost 40 years ago, the elderly Alfred Lunt considered starring in an early version of "Trying" but realized that the role was beyond his powers.

There's the rub. Casting Biddle -- a role that requires Shakespearean endurance and craft -- is no mean feat. Those old enough to play it may be too old to sustain it -- and unless the performer is convincingly elderly, the entire venture crashes into caricature.

Fortunately, director Cameron Watson has found his ideal Biddle in Alan Mandell, a stage veteran of roughly the right age for the role. More important, Mandell's powers are absolutely undiminished by time. Not to gush overmuch, but his portrayal is a marvel -- one of the five best performances you will see in this lifetime.

A privileged blueblood with the lockjaw pronunciation to prove it, Mandell's halting, hilariously irascible Biddle valiantly soldiers on, despite pain that makes it agony to dial a phone. Biddle clashes spectacularly with his new secretary Sarah (Rebecca Mozo), a feisty young miss from Saskatchewan who blows a bracing wind straight off the Canadian prairies into his narrow social orbit.

Primly clad in A. Jeffrey Schoenberg's crisp period costumes, the exceptionally talented Mozo holds her own with Mandell, and that's saying something. Watson's faultless staging is augmented by sound technical elements -- Victoria Profitt's handsome and cozy set, Cricket Myers' subtle sound and Jared A. Sayeg's virtuosic lighting design, which perfectly evokes the separate seasons of Biddle's final year. In every particular, this is an optimum production, the perfect jewel box surrounding Mandell's glittering gem of a performance -- one not to be missed.

--

'Trying'

Where: Colony Theatre,

555 N. 3rd St., Burbank

When: 8 p.m. Fridays-

Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Sept. 9

Price: $37 to $42

Contact: (818) 558-7000,

Ext. 15

Running time: 2 hours,

15 minutes

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