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Theater Review

Candid are the brave

Kirk Douglas is straight with himself in a touching, amusing one-man

March 09, 2009|Charles McNulty | theater critic

Kirk Douglas, he-man movie star, Hollywood conscience, warmhearted family man, generous philanthropist, all-around mensch. Check, check, check, check and check. Shall we add performance artist to the list?

At 92, Douglas isn't expected to have any more tricks up his sleeve. But in "Before I Forget," his one-man autobiographical stroll, enjoying a very limited run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (there are just two more scheduled performances), he does what action heroes like him aren't supposed to do -- reveal a vulnerable side while looking over the books of his life and trying to do a fair and honest accounting.

Now, by performance art I don't mean to suggest Douglas is rolling around naked in chocolate sauce or monologuing about his privates. But a hallmark of the art form is a ruthless examination of the self, and in roughly 80 minutes of shared rumination -- some harmlessly anecdotal, some remorselessly self-scrutinizing -- that is what he manages to achieve.

Genuinely touching and amusing by turns, the show -- special event, really -- has a relaxed, moseying feel. It's as though we've been invited into Douglas' Beverly Hills den to watch home movies and listen to tales from his incredible showbiz odyssey.

Nice invitation. Who wouldn't want to hear about a lovers' quarrel between Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, or the way Fred Astaire danced to his door after Douglas dropped him off after a night out together? But the result, under the direction of Jeff Kanew, is more emotionally stirring than any gossipy buffet of Golden Age hors d'oeuvres.

This "ragman's son" -- the phrase comes from the title of one of his memoirs about his hardscrabble beginnings as the son of Russian Jewish immigrants -- didn't have success handed to him. But Issur Danielovitch's rough start prepared him for a journey that has continued to throw up challenges, even though it's been far more glamorous than anything he could have dreamed of as a kid riding in the back of fertilizer trucks or being shunted aside by his saloon-dwelling father.

Douglas' more recent battle scars, received from a stroke in 1996, are there for all to see. His speech is impaired, and there are times when it's difficult to make out what he's saying. In truth, it would have been easier for him to skip this project entirely, retreating into the memory of his former glory and concealing his condition from eyes that would prefer to remember him in his heyday.

But not for nothing was Spartacus one of his signature roles. Indeed, the bigger the obstacle, the more determination you can expect from an actor whose heart may have softened over the years but who has remained otherwise in good fighting form. I sure wouldn't want to mess with a former star of St. Lawrence University's wrestling team, who even when dressed like an older gentleman in a sweater and slacks, looks like he could still easily get you into a headlock.

"Before I Forget" begins with a clip from the Academy Awards. Steven Spielberg's fervent introduction, reminding the audience of the principled stand Douglas took to get blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's name listed in the credits for "Spartacus," is followed by Douglas' heartfelt acceptance speech for his honorary Oscar.

Any fear that this might turn into a vanity exercise was dismissed once Douglas ambled onto the stage and, struggling at times to pronounce words, confessed to us that the hardest part of the stroke has been the depression. Suicide was thwarted only by a toothache that hurt like heck when he put a gun into his mouth, and the love of his wife Anne, the woman he's been with for more than half a century and who is his one unabashed outlet for sentimentality.

The most moving parts of the show are the parallels he draws -- more implicit than explicit -- of his troubled relationship with his emotionally withdrawn father and his own brooding misgivings about his possible failures as a parent. When Douglas asked son Michael in a taped interview -- and by the way, the movie star was in attendance on open- ing night with his superglam wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones -- whether he was a good dad, all he can hear is the pause that precedes the positive answer: "ultimately."

Of a more tragic order is his reflection on son Eric, who died from a drug overdose in 2004 and whose memory seems to haunt him with a persistent guilt. Douglas, doing what artists do, struggles to find meaning in the somber chaos.

Also, doing what actors do, he allows himself to experience the joy of performing. Video footage of a musical number he danced and sang one year at the Oscars with Burt Lancaster flaunts his sheer love of entertaining.

Douglas still obviously adores the "warm bath" of applause, and he continues to earn it.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Before I Forget'

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Friday,

2 p.m. Sunday

Price: $25

Contact: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

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