By Michael Warren
The Dresser
By Ronald Harwood
Directed by Larry King


front-rowThis was a good performance of a difficult play. It’s a stagy, self-conscious play that can only work when the two principal actors deliver amazing performances. Don Rausch and Fred Koesling do deliver, but in the end the play itself fails to come through. It’s about the vanity and the power of a great actor—we need to see that vanity and that power as he is gradually transformed into King Lear for one final time.

Unfortunately, Harwood’s construction requires that we imagine “Sir’s” performance—we only see it secondhand, as the entire play takes place backstage. The tragedy of Lear becomes the tragedy of the dresser, unrecognized and unloved, Norman the Fool to his master’s ranting, raving Lear. But the play lacks tension and compassion, and in the end we don’t much care when the old actor dies, or whether the dresser is or is not rewarded for his long and faithful service.

The Dresser is also about the art of acting—that peculiar combination of ego and complete absorption into the part that constitutes great acting – and both Don Rausch (as “Norman”) and Fred Koesling (as “Sir”) demonstrate those qualities. Fred Koesling’s booming voice is entirely suitable for the part of the aging but still formidable actor, while Don Rausch manages to be humble, wheedling and manipulative as the dresser, while maintaining some shred of dignity throughout – until the end of the play when he is overcome by grief and anger. A great performance.

These two are in effect the play. The other parts are well handled, and serve as a helpful backdrop to the main drama. Phyllis Silverman plays “Her Ladyship” somewhat unhappily. One senses that her marriage to Sir has become a sham, and she wishes to retire gracefully from the stage before her rendering of Cordelia becomes totally implausible.

Liz White is restrained and British as the Stage Manager “Madge” whose main concern is whether the performance should be canceled, and the audience refunded their money. Incidentally, this concern is not shared by us (the actual audience), since we know there is a second act—the show must go on! Florette Schnelle is attractive as the young would-be actress “Irene” whom the lascivious Sir would like to fondle, if he wasn’t so miserably weak and old. And Graham Miller is very funny as the futile “Geoffrey Thornton” forced to be the Fool for the evening. Finally John Foster plays the odious “Oxenby” with suitable nastiness.

Larry King was able to find a good experienced cast, and they really came through for him. The sound effects were clever—the air-raid siren, the sound of bombs exploding, and the actual voices of Churchill and FDR. I also appreciated the handling of the onstage sound effects for the “pelting of the pitiless storm.” Everyone, backstage and onstage, worked so hard to make this play a success that it seems churlish to criticize. The problem lies with the play – it’s too long and too pretentious. Some of the best lines are Shakespeare’s, but we need a more interesting play to carry them.

Next up is The Boy Friend, a 1920s musical written in 1954 by Sandy Wilson. A big cast is now in rehearsal, and the show will be onstage by the time you read this review. It’s “déjà vu” all over again!

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