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A CurtainUp Review
With focused direction by Simon Green, David Boyle as Peter Sellers reveals a lifetime of behavior that was not merely unacceptable but obnoxious, mean-spirited and cruel. Before this one-man play opens, Boyle's Sellers is sleeping in his hospital bed, the main prop in a spare space with the audience on three sides. There is no raised stage, which punctuates one's feeling of visiting Sellers in his hospital room— that is, if you dared, knowing his self-centered arrogance and fiery temper. When he wears the trademark black glasses, Boyle bears a remarkable resemblance to the actor, and while that changes as he moves around the stage, Sellers' inner traits emerge just as convincingly as the fictional film personalities.
We see an anguished Sellers trying to come to terms with his antagonistic personality after having suffered yet one more heart attack. This one proves fatal and he uses characters to search for why he is here and to make amends. The problem is that the man does not admit doing anything wrong. Flipping through his life as if it were the pages of a calendar, he tells us about his show business parents, his unstable childhood, the brilliant career, the loves he abused, his numerous enemies. Everyone is warped by his sheer nastiness. Sellers constantly harkens back to his mother, Peg. As he moves toward the final destination she awaits him. However, gefore reaching that "white light" Sellers is put in a transition space — a purgatory remembered from one of his childhood schools, St. Aloysius, where he was sent because he was a difficult child. Born a Jew, though non-practicing ("I've never set foot in a synagogue all my life"), an Irish priest told him he had no soul and now Sellers fears, "Oh, my God! An eternity here with just . . . myself!" There's also a clumsy attempt to to investigate Sellers' life by Inspector Clouseau ("You were born on the road. Do you happen to know the name of this road?" ) We also hear from his psychiatrist, Dr. Fritz Fassbender ("Ve need to examine who you really are").
Sellers was happiest when he was in the military, out of his mother's grasp and where he amused himself by dressing up and impersonating officers. (quot;Nobody ever saw through it! It was a great way of drumming up a good audience!") His career success began with rapid impersonations on the British radio The Gong Show. Yet trying to please his aggressive mother always stood in the way of contentment. Even when he fell in love and married he destroyed his relationships, including that with his two children. As he explains it, "Ma. . . had to become great! That's what you wanted. Isn't it? You have to sacrifice some things for that!"
It's difficult to excuse, much less forgive, Peter Sellers. The play does offer some black humor as when he reaches into his bedside table for his pint, takes a swallow and declares "Medication! As W.C. Field said: Never drink water. Fish fuck in it!" And it's compelling to watch Boyle depicting the genius of the chameleon actor as he weighs in with John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, Winston Churchill, Hitler and Groucho Marx.
Being Sellers, marks the 30th anniversary of Peter Sellers' death at age 54. Neither writer or actor whitewashes the man, yet it's a glaring quick portrait with a surprising tinge of empathy.