'Stoneface': Theater Review

Jim Cox
Further invigorated from its award-winning run at Sacred Fools, this biographical fantasia of the great comedy genius boasts a meaningfully deepened lead performance by French Stewart.  

French Stewart plays legendary silent film comedy icon Buster Keaton in this Pasadena production.

If one cares about the movies, and about comedy (and what can life be without them?), the soul of Buster Keaton (played here by French Stewart) needs must be spliced into one’s DNA. One cannot help but feel proprietary about one’s personal relationship to the bottomlessly expressive, impassive Keaton, so one can readily anticipate trepidation at the temerity of representing his art and life onstage. But within the confines of the 2012 Sacred Fools space, Vanessa Claire Stewart’s Stoneface may have played a little free and easy with facts and chronology but conveyed a genuine appreciation for his artistry and a tangible compassion for his tortured trials as a creative and self-destructive artist.

That premiere garnered near-universal acclaim, including the L.A. Weekly Award for Best Production of the Year. The Pasadena Playhouse displayed the acumen to move the show into a full Equity mounting, and perhaps even more deserves serious props for keeping its personnel and cast largely intact, instead of the usual: snatching the star and otherwise bringing in out-of-town talent to supplant the original creators.

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In return, these worthy locals have raised the ante with a gratifyingly more mature rendering, deploying the extra resources wisely, evolving the text in even richer directions and broadening the logistical scope to enhance the drama with the improved effects, rather than overwhelming it. They make some daring choices, not least taking the signature Steamboat Bill Jr. gag of the house falling about Buster and, instead of hyping it as a grand tour-de-force, almost brusquely toss it away as a frighteningly metaphoric first-act closer. Even when an intricate Rube Goldberg stunt went awry opening night, the actors were so on their game that they improvised their way even deeper into character and further hilarity with apparent effortlessness.

The plot inventively flits about chronologically, depicting Buster’s rise to stardom, his rivalry with Charles Chaplin (Guy Picot), his disastrous marriage to Natalie Talmadge (Tegan Ashton Cohan), his surrender of artistic control and independence in signing with M-G-M not long after the expensive failure of The General, and his calamitous decline into alcoholism and obscurity, culminating in his beating the bottle, eking out a living consulting back at the studio and meeting his redemptive love, final wife Eleanor (Rena Strober, who also plays Natalie's sister Norma). His despair at the loss of the prints of his work, consigned inevitably to vinegary dust, and the surprising resurrection of his reputation with their preservation strikes a piquant note that effectively invites the audience to be able to identify, in our mortality and the evanescence of our own work, with such a unique, incomparable personality.

Stewart, who remained a stalwart stage participant over the years at the Cast Theatre and then Sacred Fools -- even while achieving television celebrity on Third Rock From the Sun and now on CBS’ Mom -- certainly tempts hubris with such a challenging undertaking, and while he was very good indeed in the first run, he has grown deeper and defter in the role here. He nails the mannerisms and voice not so much through mimicry as adapting them effectively to his own body and instrument (though still not consistently solving that most intractable of film acting conundrums: what to do with one’s hands). Most crucially, Stewart has mastered his own version of conveying a dizzying range of emotions without varying his deadpan expression, the hallmark of Keaton’s genius as an actor that distinguished him as the finest of the silent era (although, if one goes beyond 1929, the continuingly ascendant Chaplin probably bests him overall). This performance has now progressed to beyond-Broadway caliber.

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Yet despite the undeniable star turn, Stoneface could not work without the sturdy support of inventive direction, imaginative design, and above all, a devoted cadre of actors who make the most of the benefit of knowing each other so well and making their thumbnail sketches indelible, from the even more unfortunate Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (Scott Leggett), who not only mentored Keaton but earlier also Chaplin, to Cohan as his selfish first wife and Strober as a plausibly sincere Eleanor. I only wish one could have seen more of the sublimely talented Joe Fria as Keaton’s primary nemesis, his younger, more committed, brilliant alter ego, or of Picot’s Chaplin, spot-on and profoundly influential in two all-too-brief appearances.

The use of newly shot silent screen footage in which the actors walk from the stage into the film frame is used far more trenchantly than in the recent Brief Encounter import, and one cannot compliment playwright French (now married to the star) enough, for all her liberties, for displaying such an empathetic understanding of the basis of Keaton’s comedy, however adapted for a modern stage context, that shows that his soul has entered her life as surely as it has so many others.

Nevertheless, I still believe that The General, great as it may be, is surpassed by Our Hospitality, Seven Chances and Battling Butler. But on the other hand, I actually even harbor some genuine appreciation for Keaton's first M-G-M talkie vehicle, 1930’s Doughboys, notwithstanding the obvious muzzling of his creative spirit. 

Venue: The Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena (runs through June 29)

Cast: French Stewart, Joe Fria, Rena Strober, Tegan Ashton Cohan, Daisy Eagan, Scott Leggett, Jake Broder, Pat Towne, Conor Duffy, Guy Picot, Ryan Johnson

Director: Jaime Robledo

Playwright: Vanessa Claire Stewart

Set designer: Joel David

Lighting designer: Jeremy Pivnick

Costume designer: Jessica Olson

Sound designer: Cricket S. Meyers

Music: Ryan Johnson

Fight director: Mike Mahaffey

Movement/dance consultant: Natasha Norman

Projection designers: Ben Rock and Anthony Backman