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A CurtainUp Review
Mark Twain Tonight!

Hal Holbrook
Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain
Hal Holbrook a.k.a. Mark Twain a.k.a. Samuel L. Clemens is having another famously bad hair day. But he looks darn dapper enough in his vanilla suit, his grand gray mustache, and red cravat. For character enhancement, there is the obligatory cigar a.k.a. "projectile" that he frequently indulges in and a box of matches that he toys with to a somewhat tiresome degree. For set pieces we have an ornate chair and side table upon which is a glass and a water pitcher, and a podium with notes that stands apart on stage left. It is obvious that the self-described "majestic presence" doesn’t need any more accommodations to be at ease on the stage of the Brooks Atkinson Theater for the next three weeks.

As a voice on high informs us before Holbrook’s entrance, "the year is 1905 and Twain is 70 years old." This also means that the 80-year-old Holbrook could be said to have more than grown into the role that he has been performing for half a century. Whatever time and temperament have done to either change or enhance Holbrook’s performance, it is still effective and timely. Holbrook’s melding of impersonation with artful delivery continues to impeccably define this famously curmudgeonly Missouri writer, who generally speaks none too kindly about the human race.

Many New Yorkers had their first opportunity to enjoy Hal Holbrook as Twain in 1959 at an Off-Broadway theater. But it wasn’t until 1966 that the by-Twain-possessed actor returned to the city with his evening celebrating the humor, wit, wisdom and the words of the man whom Hemingway said began American literature. Awarded a Tony as Best Actor in a Play, and a Drama Circle Award, Holbrook has had decades to further hone his performance as well as vary the repertoire chosen from reportedly over 16 hours of collected material from the Twain canon.

Audiences who take advantage of seeing this extremely casual yet ingratiating entertainment (this marks Holbrook’s 4th New York engagement) will be rewarded with two hours of richly detailed, if also grievously protracted, musings in a both a humorous and serious vein. The program moves expectedly from the lighter yarns -- including material drawn from his sketches, essays, speeches, biography and autobiography -- and building to a passage from Twain’s masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

One of the more amusing stories shared by the famed humorist who reminded us that "I was born modest but it wore off," is called "My Encounter with an Interviewer," in which Twain goes out of his way to flummox an increasingly addled gentleman of the press. Another anecdote about a blue jay, acorns and a hole goes on way too long and to a questionable payoff. There are also one too many moments when Holbrook’s Pinteresque pauses during a story tend to make one wonder if this is part of the character or a momentary lapse of memory. Even though much of Holbrook’s performance is presumably set in stone, it wouldn’t be compromised by a director’s fresh touch. It might also decrease the surprising number of walkouts I noticed at intermission. Boredom may have been an issue for some at the performance I attended, but not for those who stayed and cheered.

Most of the evening, however, finds Twain taking an aggressive, often bitter and caustic, stand on the follies of the fourth estate; for example, an editor advises "get the facts and then distort them as much as you please."). The inherent immorality of the world’s religions include Twain/Hobrook's self-mocking "I am a thoughtful unbiased Presbyterian." He saves some of his most candid coments for the lies, deceptions, and hypocrisy from the government ("Washington is the stud farm for every jackass in the country", all of which scarily resounds with frightening immediacy one hundred years later, and gets prolonged applause.

I was most taken with Twain’s keen observation in regard to all our adversaries: "They are all insane.""When you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to reflect," is another pungent zinger. It's hard to resist the temptation to go and on with Twain-isms.

One could say that the body of this particular collection veers toward the cynical, but as Holbrook's Twain reminds us, "I’m an optimist who has not arrived." One of the sweeter second act stories recounts Twain’s courtship of his long-time wife Olivia. After Olivia’s father had read letters from Twain’s acquaintances expressing their disapproval, he asks the young suitor, "Do you have any friends?" When Twain answers, "No," Olivia’s father says, "Good, then I’ll be your friend." And so began a happy marriage.

Whether due to fear or intimidation, stand-up political comics are in short supply.

In case you missed Twain's original lecture tour in 1866, may I commend to you this one filled with ample proof that he never really died, but simply channeled his way into Holbrook’s heart and mind and decided to stay there.

Editor's Note: Our reviews are usually headed by a quotation, but as Simon indicated, one Twain-ism would hardly suffice for a man who was a veritable walking book quotable quips. The 3,770,000 pages that a Google search for Mark Twain kicks up many devoted strictly to Twaini-isms.

Written and performed by Hal Holbrook (adapted from Mark Twain's writings)
Running time: 2 hours and 5 minutes, includes one 15-minute intermission intermission.
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, 212-307-4100.
From 6/06/05 to 6/26/05; opening 6/09/05.
Monday through Saturday at 8 PM. Sunday Matinee at 3 PM.
Tickets: $50 to $85
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on June 7th press performance
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