`Playing Burton’

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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 17, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Off-Broadway Reviews: `Edge’

Paul Alexander presumably knows a great deal about Sylvia

Plath, having written "Rough Magic," a biography of the legendary

and lauded poet and author, who, when she was 30, committed suicide

at home in her kitchen. As a playwright (he also directed), he only

gives us a smattering of the complex emotional issues that Plath had

to contend with in this dour, but hardly desultory, one-woman play.

Set during the last day of her life, Plath sits in a small London

flat, determined to end her life. Her focus is on venting and purging,

but always with a bitter wit and a need for irony. This helps as the

facts, about her childhood in Massachusetts, her love for the brilliant

father who died when she was a child, and her years at Smith College,

tend, at first, to merely tumble out as so much exposition.

But eventually Plath’s tirade settles down on her volatile relationship

with her brutish, insensitive husband, the famed British poet Ted

Hughes. While it would help to come prepared with some background

on Plath, both the path and the pathology that brings her to this

point is provided by a very compelling Anglelica Torn. Her excellent

characterization provides a vivid portrait of a woman obsessed and

undone by a man who, it is revealed, was not unlike her own father.

Notwithstanding the fact that Torn, the daughter of the incomparable

Geraldine Page and Rip Torn, has inherited a few of her mother’s recognizable

mannerisms, her performance is otherwise driven by a rage and an emotional

resource that eloquently fills in the blanks left by the author. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.

Edge DR2 Theater, 103 East 15 Street, New York. $40. Tele-Charge

at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200 . To September 20.

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`Playing Burton’

They say that if you live with someone long enough you

begin to look like them. It’s particularly true of actors who appear

as famous people for any length of time. Brian Mallon has been "Playing

Burton" (Richard, that is) for over six hundred performances on

three continents since 1982. The good news is that he is believable

and excellent. It only takes a short time to forget that the intense,

blue-eyed Welshman, as famous for his acting as for his marriage(s)

to Elizabeth Taylor, is not actually standing before us recapping

life and career.

In Mark Jenkin’s riveting, one-character play (which he also directed),

Burton talks to us posthumously, after glancing at his obit and listening

to the BBC announce his death. That Mallon’s voice can’t be expected

to rival the deep mellifluous tones that cascaded from Burton’s mouth,

his duly articulated and polished performance presents a startlingly

respectful image of the man who, dazzled audiences on Broadway as

"Hamlet," and as King Arthur in "Camelot." Understandably,

his regrettable "Private Lives" with Taylor is never mentioned.

"I will not go gentle into that good night," says the actor

born Richard Jenkins, who would adopt the last name of his voice teacher

Philip Burton, the mentor/coach who would erase the boy’s thick-as-a-knife

Welsh accent, "liberating the consonants," as well as instructing

him in proper social behavior. "Philip taught me to speak English

like a sword," he says about the man who had fortuitously replaced

his real father, an estranged drunkard. It didn’t take long for the

handsome young man employed in a gentlemen’s haberdashery to land

a few choice stage roles. In quick succession, he would earn praise

from the critics, get signed by Darryl F. Zanuck and make his first

film "My Cousin Rachel."

Relatively free from self-serving justification for his failed first

marriage that produced two daughters, or from the many indiscretions

that were fodder for the tabloids, this is a Burton who, with few

regrets, is both sarcastic and winning, ignoble and peerless. Often

charged with never fulfilling his potential, being a womanizer and

a chronic alcoholic, Burton takes most umbrage at his critics arguing

that making good money in big Hollywood films is not selling out.

This is a fast, entertaining hour and a half (including an intermission)

that offers enough insight, wit and juicy detail about Burton’s relatively

short life to prove that it was far from wasted. Nor will your time

be. Three stars. You won’t be sorry.

— Simon Saltzman

Playing Burton Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22 Street,

New York, 212-727-2737. $30.


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