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A CurtainUp Review

Playing Burton
By Brad Bradley

For those who care about the work of the late Welsh actor Richard Burton, even more famous for his affair and two marriages to Elizabeth Taylor than for his notable work as a stage and later mostly film actor, Playing Burton is a notable treat, with Brian Mallon casting a spell as Burton, luckily having both a look and voice which give him a decided leg up in his assignment. Burton was said to "use English like a sword," and his joy in speaking Shakespeare and Marlowe was apparent. His complicated, often self-destructive life, not so unlike that of the dramatic icons he portrayed, led to what he himself describes as "myth" about the greatness of his acting.

Unlike the paper-thin version of the life of actor John Barrymore that Christopher Plummer performed on Broadway some time ago, this staged biography does have significant samples of an actor at work, and some insight into Burton's own view of acting as well. Also, Mallon has studied his subject quite well, and delivers superbly. Author/director Jenkins smartly provides in his text samples of Burton rendering lines from roles he is particularly connected with, including of course the eponymous Hamlet as well as George from Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Act I usefully includes a profile of his childhood family in Wales, particular pride in the sister who raised him, and a good sense of his mentor Philip Burton, from whom he took his own stage name. Also we see some of the understandable regrets of his life, including not living long enough to play King Lear. However, the first act is a bit too heavy on personal gossip, and the production notes leave one wondering if the author of this stage biography shares any family heritage with Burton, also called Jenkins before he adopted his stage name.

The second act has more dramatic edge, opening with the fantasy of Burton reading his own obituaries in the newspapers, and also including superb anecdotes involving John Gielgud and Winston Churchill, in addition to inevitable additional references to Burton's romantic conquests and challenges. One wishes for more examination of the acting partnership with Ms. Taylor, with fuller attention to his better roles with and without her, perhaps including their successful film of The Taming of the Shrew and their apparently ironically riotous rendition of Coward's Private Lives.

Fallon's burning eyes help cast a magnetic spell on the audience, whether he is recalling his subject's early Shakespearean challenges, describing the humble family life in Wales, or chatting on the telephone to Elizabeth Taylor when she apparently queried "Who's Marlowe?" in response to a reference to Shakespeare's notable contemporary. His voice is strong and uncannily convincing, perhaps different from the subject only in being a bit more reedy in texture.

As director of his own script, Jenkins achieves strong pacing and energy from Mallon's performance, although the direction is deprived of the critical eye on the script that at times lets the material substitute bathos for revelation. Overall though, Playing Burton is a worthy show that deserves a look.

Author and Director: Mark Jenkins
Cast: Brian Mallon (as Richard Burton)
Set and Lighting: Mark Hankla
Costume Design: David Toser
Sound Design: Dan Donnelly
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
August 6 through September 14, 2003; Opened August 14, 2003.
Reviewed by Brad Bradley

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