'The Kid Stays in the Picture': Theater Review

The Kid Stays in the Picture - Production Images 2 - Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Johan Persson
An aptly trippy knockout production.

Danny Huston channels Robert Evans for this theatrical interpretation of the legendary Hollywood producer's autobiography, which is having a limited premiere run in London, directed by Simon McBurney.

"There are three sides to every story," Robert Evans once famously wrote in his memoir, The Kid Stays in the Picture. "My side, your side and the truth. And no one is lying." With this prismatic, technically dazzling and robustly entertaining adaptation of Evans' story for the Royal Court stage in London, director Simon McBurney and his co-author James Yeatman show that telling even just one side is never as simple as it looks.

A transatlantic cast of eight plays the mutable Evans at various points in his colorful life as he goes from being a dentist’s son in Harlem to heading Paramount Pictures and producing Chinatown — that's before it all turns sour with cocaine, Francis Ford Coppola friction and a cadaver in a canyon.

As befits the avant-garde reputation of Complicite, the company McBurney co-founded in the early 1980s, this dynamic production is almost constantly in tightly choreographed motion. Projectors, closed-circuit cameras and audio effects all collaborate playfully to amplify, multiply and distort the action onstage while footage from some of Evans’ many films flickers in the background. Thanks to exceptional levels of skill assembled for the task, the whole noisy, giddy shebang is masterful rather than migraine-inducing.

Rumor has it that the producers (Bond-film doyenne Barbara Broccoli is among them, as well as Evans himself) are looking to transfer to New York as soon as possible. Either way, the production is getting only a limited run at the Royal Court through April 8, which is nearly sold out even before reviews hit.

It's impressive how much atmosphere the set, designed by Anna Fleischle, generates considering how little of it there is. In the front, there are just a few microphones on stands, a dolly track for one of several cameras that loop back the action through projectors and a mini-refrigerator, containing convenient drinks and providing a white backdrop for more projections, usually of photographs of the real-life people mentioned.

At the back is a box of sorts on casters, glazed with that high-tech glass that can go opaque in a second. For much of the first half, it remains cloudy and only the shadow of Danny Huston is visible as he recites large chunks of Evans' original narration. In the second half, the box is more often illuminated. Dressed inside with just an oriental rug and a TV set, it's transformed by clever projection trickery at various points throughout into locations, but most of all into the sumptuous baroque interiors of Evans' own Beverly Hills mansion, Woodland.

The acclaimed 2002 documentary adaptation by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen extensively toured this locale, Evans’ own personal Eden, and surely some of the footage projected here is from that film. There even seems to be a visual echo of the doc’s distinctive digital collage technique that created a pseudo-3D effect with static photographs.

Around these sparse physical elements, the stage production builds up a magical world of memories and mirages, shifting screens that sift through the many truths and sides to all these stories within stories. Like the other iterations of Evans' memoir — the original book, the audiobooks he narrated himself, which became cult listening in Hollywood, and then the 2002 film — this revisits the stations of the Evans cross.

It covers the early years when his Jewish father ministered to the dental needs of Harlem residents and wanted something more for his son; Evans' early, frustrated acting ambitions; the moment Darryl Zanuck refused to fire him while shooting The Sun Also Rises in Mexico (an anecdote that created the title The Kid Stays in the Picture); and on through his rise to fame, fortune and the time he talked Henry Kissinger into attending the New York premiere of The Godfather when Marlon Brando refused to come.

In the earliest part, Evans is played by a lanky Heather Burns (from Manchester by the Sea), in a suit and slicked back hair, before Christian Camargo (Dexter, Penny Dreadful) takes over the iconic '70s eyewear to play Evans for the bulk of the remaining story. But still Evans' lines shift from actor to actor, and everyone gets a go at one point. Fans of Todd Haynes' kaleidoscopic Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There might find an echo here, especially given the 1960s-'70s time frame, but the effect is somehow even trippier and weirder.

Nevertheless, thanks to costuming, musical cues and the cast's remarkable vocal skills, each supporting "character" in the story stands out clearly and distinctly. Thomas Arnold (who appeared in Complicite's The Master and Margarita) reaps laughs with a German accent and plenty of profanity as Evans' Gulf & Western boss Charles Bluhdorn. Burns is nearly every significant woman in Evans' life, from Mia Farrow shooting Rosemary's Baby to Evans' wife and greatest love, Ali MacGraw. Puckish and protean, Max Casella capers from role to role, at one moment a peevish Roman Polanski and then Evans' collaborator Peter Bart or Mario Puzo with a padded stomach and enormous cigar.

The entire ensemble is so skillful with the transformations, one rather gives up keeping score of who is doing whom, although I’m pretty sure that was Ajay Naidu doing a subtle but pitch-perfect impersonation of Richard Gere.

A common complaint about biographical stories is that they lack literary structure — this happens, and then that happens and so on. And unless, as in many recent films, the writer chooses to focus on some moment of redemption or tragedy, it can all turn into a shapeless mess. The text by McBurney and Yeatman doesn't go for the cliche triggers to fashion a neat psychological arc, like a sibling who died tragically young (although one of Evans' brothers does indeed die), thus creating an addictive tendency. And yet there is a visible shape and shifting to the story, a sense of a hand that guides us to the end, although that hand may not be Evans' own.

In this vision of the Robert Evans story, he's just another character buffeted by the winds of storytelling, trying to make a buck and survive.

Ultimately, the show never spells out why the producers have chosen to stage this play at this particular moment in time. One might speculate that McBurney, a much more successful actor than Evans ever was, feels a vague kinship with this New Hollywood-era multi-tasking impresario, an outsider who broke rules, even if the similarity probably ends there. Maybe it just comes down to the fact that Evans is now 87 and can't have many years left to bask in his glory days. His earliest acting ambitions took him toward the stage, so it seems fitting that this late-in-life tribute should be an extraordinary theatrical sendoff.

Venue: Royal Court Theatre, London
Cast: Thomas Arnold, Heather Burns, Christian Camargo, Max Casella, Clint Dyer, Danny Huston, Ajay Naidu, Madeleine Potter
Director: Simon McBurney
Co-director: James Yeatman

Playwrights: Simon McBurney, James Yeatman, based on the memoir by Robert Evans
Set designer: Anna Fleischle
Costume designer: Christina Cunningham
Lighting designer: Paul Anderson
Sound designer: Peter Malkin
Video designer: Simon Wainwright

Produced by Patrick Milling Smith, Barbara Broccoli, Robert Evans, Michael G. Wilson, Brian Carmody, Royal Court Theatre in association with Complicite