Our theater critic on a play about the theater. Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck reviews "The Dresser" at Everyman Theatre.
"The Dresser" at Everyman Theatre
Three-quarters of the way into Ronald Harwood’s backstage drama, “The Dresser,” the character of the leading man says: “The critics? Hate the critics? I have nothing but compassion for them. How can one hate the crippled, the mentally deficient and the dead?”
Now, you might think this would upset a critic. But theater critics enjoy seeing plays about the theater as much as actors enjoy performing them. I have nothing but fond memories of Harwood’s 1980 play and subsequent 1983 movie.
But at Everyman Theatre, director Derek Goldman’s production of “The Dresser” seems almost as quaint as the play’s subject: An actor-manager in the grand tradition of David Garrick or even Laurence Olivier and his relationship with his devoted dresser.
With rare exceptions – “House of Card’s” own Kevin Spacey, who runs London’s Old Vic is one – actor-managers are a thing of the past. And, in a way, Harwood’s “The Dresser” is a bittersweet Valentine to a bygone era he knew well. In the 1950s, the playwright was the personal dresser of one of the last of the breed, Donald Wolfit.
Harwood sets “The Dresser” in the British provinces in 1942. Tonight the touring repertory company is scheduled to perform “King Lear.” Shakespeare’s tragedy about an aging leader whose faculties and judgment are failing offers an obvious parallel to the condition of Sir, as the actor-manager is simply called.
Carl Schurr is stunning as Sir. He stumbles into his dressing room disheveled, nearly delirious. One of the play’s best bits is watching him get into makeup. With the addition of a long white beard and wig and exaggerated makeup, the actor looks more like Moses in war paint than any approximation of a once-noble king.
It’s our first indication that things are a little off, that this theater troupe out in the sticks, and its leading man and lady, may be living on a diet of hyperbole.
Carl Schurr makes Sir a total – if somewhat deluded – man of the the-A-ter. He’s vain, selfish, exasperating and a bit endearing. His decline feels all too real.
In Bruce Randolph Nelson’s interpretation of the title character, keeping Sir going is all that keeps the dresser going. He’s as dependent on Sir as he is on the bottle of brandy tucked in his apron. Instead of seeing devotion, what we see from the start is more like a sickness – the kind that provokes pity, not concern.
Members of Everyman’s resident acting company make up nearly half of the cast – a nice touch for a play about an acting company. Deborah Hazlett is especially touching as Sir’s wife and leading lady.
And it’s fun seeing all hands on deck backstage creating the sound effects for the storm scene in “Lear.” James Fouchard designed this evocative backstage set, with an appropriately shabby dressing room that glides in and out.
There’s a line in one of the dressing room scenes that Everyman audiences probably think was tweaked for this production. “I should have left you in Baltimore on the last American tour,” Sir’s wife tells him.
I’d have thought Baltimore and Everyman – tucked into the shell of a former theatrical palace – would have been a warm, welcoming match for “The Dresser.” But despite the occasional laugh, “The Dresser” at Everyman is a bleak love letter – more melodramatic than tragic, more elegiac than nostalgic.
-J. Wynn Rousuck