A Word Or Two: Theater Review

An endearing one-man show shares the great thespian’s love of reading and infatuation with the power and solace of words. 

Christopher Plummer stars in his own staged memoir of a literature-loving life at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown L.A.

Few enticements can feel as comforting as an invitation into the inner life of the protean Christopher Plummer. Through the blandishments of his seductive voice, he shares a lifetime of escape into the world of literature. As a solitary and painfully shy boy, books provided a world in which he could safely seek adventure and find guidance for living.

With his quicksilver ability to express the essence of the wisdom and wit of dozens of writers with formidable economy of intonation and gesture, Plummer embodies those ineluctable ecstasies of losing oneself in engrossed transport. Together we partake of remembering how our mindful encounters with fantasy make reality more comprehensible. We may be sitting in the vast expanses of the Ahmanson, yet Plummer conveys the sensation of wearing slippers and dressing gown in one’s home library, possibly while sipping port. It’s tactile, and it doesn’t feel like a Kindle.

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Plummer remains unabashedly a man loyal to his own era. Many of the authors he recites were mainstays of youthful reading in the 1930s to 1950s, though now obscure and out of favor: Archibald MacLeish, Algernon Swinburne (always alluded to by surname only), professors Stephen Leacock andIrwin Corey, S.J. Perelman, Ogden Nash, even Robert Frost’s “Birches.” He begins and ends with the Lewis Carroll “I’ll Tell Thee Everything I Can” with its seminal illustration of an old man sitting on a gate that first captivated him as a tot and now brings him full circle to a contemplation of mortality. Above all, Plummer testifies to the enduring power of families reading together, in a childhood before the intrusions of television preempted so much of the unfettered exploration of the imagination.

Plummer can brandish a bon mot like a rapier, as with a quotation ascribed to Napoleon: “Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.” Or he can be moony with love lyrics or sentimental with Shakespeare or Marlowe. His easy intimacy with audience reminds of his Iago without the least insinuation of malice. Many of the parts he plays in brief he has done before in his storied career: Vladimir Nabokov, Cyrano, Kipling. Above all, Plummer, who has always worked without cessation, stands as testimony to unstinting labor at craft: he keeps on getting better, reminding of Pablo Casals’ reply when asked why he still practiced the cello for hours daily at 93: “I believe I am starting to improve.”

Of course, the real secret to the pleasure of this performance lies in the masterful illusion that because Plummer is confiding in us about his life and family, his dreams and delusions, even some secrets, he is merely being himself, whereas instead he gives us something far better. That is, a genuine characterization of subtle detail and assured masquerade inspired by the experience of one Christopher Plummer. He cannot help but ply his art, especially when he wants to achieve the ineffable effect of artlessness. He never gives us less. 

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, downtown (through Feb. 9, 2014)

Cast: Christopher Plummer

Director: Des McAnuff

Writer: Christopher Plummer

Set Designer: Robert Brill

Lighting Designer: Michael Walton

Composer: Michael Roth

Sound Designer: Peter McBoyle

Presented by Center Teatre Group in association with the Stratford Festival of Canada