I have been in awe of a fellow named Orson Bean almost all of my life. Since we are exactly the same age, I followed his career spanning nearly six decade as we both grew up, he to stardom and me to being a film producer and journalist. One of my first recollections of him was when he made guest appearances on the Johnny Carson Show, some 200 of them, filling in for Johnny over a hundred times when the host was off. I never missed an episode of his six-year run on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and he was on To Tell The Truth for seven years. Twenty years of starring on Broadway, and I vividly recall his appearance in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter in 1956-57. (His account of the nude Jayne Mansfield greeting him backstage are priceless.) He has published four books, including his new memoir, Safe at Home, survived the industry blacklist in the 1950's and currently lives in Venice, Ca. with his wife, actress Alley Mills (who played the mother on The Wonder Years), where they are both members of the Pacific Resident Theatre. Yes, he is a famed storyteller/raconteur as well as being a consummate actor and director...a truly well-rounded talent.
Some years ago, when I began writing a regular blog for the Huffington Post/Los Angeles, I was pleasantly astonished to get an email from "O" telling me that he read me regularly and liked my scribblings. We became sort of email buddies. So naturally when I read that Bean would be starring in the world-premiere of a play at the intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, I was front-and-center there last night. And it was a stunning evening of theater and drama. DEATH OF THE AUTHOR is by the Pulitzer nominee Steven Drukman. and it was directed by Bart DeLorenzo. (He directed the wonderful Coney Island Christmas there which we reviewed favorably at the time.) Other actors in the new play are Austin Butler, David Clayton Rogers and Lyndon Smith. (Austin appeared as the boyfriend in last season's TV series, The Carrie Diaries, written by my friend, Amy Harris.)
The play follows a young professor, Jeff, played by David Clayton Rogers, who suspects a student, Bradley, played byAustin, of plagiarism. His inquiry sparks a chain of events affecting the lives of four people in very real terms. Orson is playing the legendary professor, J. Trumbull Sykes, who is called in to review the troublesome situation, while Lyndon Smith plays Sarah, the erstwhile girlfriend of Bradley.
Drukman's beautifully-drawn characters must navigate heartbreak, blind ambition and the cutthroat competition that thrives within these ivy-covered walls. His smart, funny and engrossing world premiere becomes a personal battle to decide what is right, what is wrong and what must be done. The play was the recipient of both the Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award and a Theater Development Grant from the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation. What intrigued me most about the play was the way it illustrates how the Internet has made access to other's ideas available at a magnitude we never could have imagined before. Drukman explores the lines between learning ideas from great minds and simple parroting back ingrained rhetoric. When do old ideas become our ideas? As a prolific writer, it is a conflict which occupies me often.
After the play I had the opportunity to meet my idol. Orson, and we discussed the drama. I expressed my concern about the ending, which seemed somewhat forced, and he reminded me that this is "a work in progress," which means the playwright is still refining it nightly. The stunning set is by Takeshi Kata and Lap Chi Chu (don't you love that name?) did the lighting design. I strongly suggest that a night in the theater is an evening well spent, and you can't go wrong by visiting the Geffen (10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood) while DEATH OF THE AUTHOR is playing here in June. Call the boxoffice at (310)208-5454 for tickets.
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