In the 1924 classic silent comedy, Sherlock Jr., its dreaming protagonist, played by the picture’s star and director, the great Buster Keaton, literally walks into a movie he’s watching and becomes part of the action. It’s a theme that’s had many a variation played on it since then—Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, for example, or the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Action Hero—but Vanessa Claire Stewart’s Stoneface, at the Pasadena Playhouse through June 29th, returns the idea lovingly to its rightful owner.
Ms. Stewart’s play—about Keaton, though more a meditative rhapsody on his life than a straight biographical telling of it—both begins and ends with members of the cast stepping behind a cinema screen and then, thanks to pre-filmed shots and sequences, magically appearing within it in glorious monochrome. When this trick is used at the opening of the show, it is merely thrilling, delightful, and comic. When it’s repeated at the closing, it is poignant, moving, and beautiful.
In between these bravura moments of stage magic, we have the play itself, which jumps back and forth—perfectly coherently—between various years in Keaton’s life in Hollywood from the early 1920s to the late 1940s, addressing both professional and personal triumphs and tragedies. While Stoneface simplifies, conflates, and condenses many events in Keaton’s turbulent life, it nevertheless remains poetically true to the life itself and to the timeless appeal of his art. My only quibble would be that at two points in the play, after characters have complained that his 1927 masterpiece The General wasn’t funny, Keaton responds, “It wasn’t supposed to be.” For all I know, that may well be a quote from the real Buster, but it’s still wrong; it’s not only misguided about The General itself—which is very funny, but not only funny—but also at odds with his entire artistic ethos. Even in the last year of his life, Keaton was trying to explain to a dullard named Samuel Beckett why 1965’s Film wasn’t good comedy.
Keaton is brought to life on stage by the playwright’s husband, French Stewart, who impressively evokes Buster’s amused fatalism without relying on mere imitation. Stewart’s stagecraft and confidence were clearly in evidence on opening night: during a scene that re-creates a memorable moment from 1920’s The Scarecrow with its Rube Goldberg-esque automated-breakfast device of gears, pullstrings, and counterweights, a bottle thrown several yards by Stewart failed to land in its trashcan target. Unfazed, Stewart—with a deadpan élan of which Keaton himself would have been proud—owned the moment, breaking the fourth wall, but not his silence, to bring the audience in on the effort and recruiting them as cheerleaders until he eventually succeeded.
The rest of the cast—Scott Leggett, Jake Broder, Rena Strober, Tegan Ashton Cohan, Joe Fria, Daisy Egan, Pat Towne, Conor Duffy, and Guy Picot—are uniformly good, with Cohan having a standout slapstick routine when, as Buster’s first wife Natalie Talmadge, she has to get the drunken comedian into bed (a witty gender-switching riff on a scene from 1929’s Spite Marriage, Keaton’s last silent comedy). Leggett, as Buster’s mentor and friend Roscoe Arbuckle, gets to deliver one of the best, and most devastating, lines in the play—and delivers it well, imbuing it with the melancholy and gravitas it deserves while avoiding the melodrama and sentimentality it risks. Speaking with Buster about the dangerously ephemeral nature of silver nitrate film stock, on which all silent films were shot, Roscoe talks about how all their work will be lost, reduced to “something that smells like vinegar and looks like ashes”.
Ryan Johnson excellently accompanies the entire show with live piano, as well as occasionally interacting with the regular cast; a hilarious example (possibly improvised?) being early in the second act when Keaton asks the pianist how he thinks it’s going and receives the reply, “Better than Act One.”
This ambitious production, remounted at the Playhouse after an earlier award-winning run at Hollywood’s Sacred Fools, relies almost as much on stage-craft and technical wizardry as it does on the text and the performances and, under the assured direction of Jaime Robledo, all departments deliver winningly, with Joel Daavid’s scenic design, Jessica Olson’s costumes, and Ben Rock & Anthony Backman’s projections being particularly impressive.
Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m.
Saturdays, 4 p.m. & 8 p.m.
Sundays, 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.
Closes Sunday, June 29th
The Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena 91101
Tickets: $54-$74 (plus premium)
For more info, visit PasadenaPlayhouse.org
Or call 626.356.7529
A native of Liverpool, England, Peter Atkins is an author and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. His last book, Rumours of the Marvellous, was a finalist for the British Fantasy Award. He can be found online at PeterAtkins.blogspot.