Theater Review: Before I Forget

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Wearing a pair of slacks and a simple gray pullover, Kirk Douglas strides to center stage with the unmistakable attitude and energy that has marked him as a Hollywood legend for 60 years.

With irresistible charm, a sharp sense of humor and a repertoire of stories and jokes drawn from his adventures as a movie star, Douglas brings back all too briefly the magic of Hollywood, the legendary city of the stars, in his "Before I Forget," which began a four-night run (the final two nights are Friday and Sunday) at the venue that bears his name.

Although he is the only actor onstage during the 90-minute performance, he is amply supported by a screen on which a generous selection of clips from movies, Oscar and other formal presentations and home movies give him an occasional breather while occasionally acting as a straight man. Before an audience of family, colleagues and adoring fans, he flashes the fire and determination that fueled his success even as it occasionally caught him up in controversy that still dogs him. At a dramatic reading the following afternoon, for example, I was told two diametrically opposed stories about the wake he left in the industry. It's the inevitable legacy that a great man who's no saint leaves behind.

In the most conventionally touching part of the evening, there is the lineup of Hollywood royalty about whom he reminisces: Lana Turner ("Lana, Lana," he sighs), Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and, with special admiration, Burt Lancaster. He describes his decision when making "Spartacus" to pull down the Hollywood blacklist with an admirable kind of "what else could I do?" humility. He faces the sometimes stormy realities of his personal life with a more authentic courage ("Was I a good father?" he asks, as if he still had a chip on his shoulder).

By the time the show is over, even though he is showing signs of fatigue and his speech is beginning to slur, he has guided the audience along the journey he made, fighting his way out of grinding poverty and cultural invisibility to create a life, a family and a persona that literally moved professional barriers and mountains of national prejudice.

Along the way, the bent but unbowed lion drops clues about why he's doing this enormously demanding series of performances: The unquenchable need of an actor to act. The desire of a great artist to show pride in the "peasant hands" with which he beautified and ennobled life as well as many lives. And, perhaps above all, the unfulfilled desire for a paternal embrace that enabled Issur Danielovitch to become Kirk Douglas.

Venue: Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City (Through March 15)
Writer-performer: Kirk Douglas
Director: Jeff Kanew
Production designer: Elisabeth A. Scott
Lighting designer: Meghan Hong
Production stage manager: David S. Franklin