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BWW Review: CLEO Barges Onto the Alley Stage

BWW Review: CLEO Barges Onto the Alley Stage

Forgive me. I've been saving that headline for months.

CLEO, a play by Lawrence Wright, was scheduled to make its world premiere last September, as The Alley Theatre's 2017 Season opener. Hurricane Harvey had other ideas. The opening was postponed; possibly even cancelled. No one really knew what would happen, as the Alley, along with the occupants of the Wortham Theater Center, scrambled to schedule any semblance of a Houston season.

So playwright Lawrence and director Bob Balaban did what any normal dramatists would do. They used the time to rewrite.

And now that play sails gloriously into Houston, making its world debut. The show must go on.

It's 1962 or so in Rome, on the set of CLEOPATRA, the 20th Century Fox epic that's supposed to save the studio, and instead is slowly sinking it. Begun in London, its Million Dollar star, Elizabeth Taylor, was stricken with pneumonia, almost died, and the entire production was scrapped and relocated to sunny Italy. The London cast was scrapped as well, and replacing Irish actor Stephen Boyd as Marc Anthony was Welshman Richard Burton.

He and Taylor had never met, and in the first scene Richard, or "Dick" as he preferred to be called, shows up for the first shoot, a love scene, excruciatingly hung over, shakes and all. Elizabeth guides a cup of coffee to his mouth, tells him to do something about his breath, and the scene commences. And never ends.

But there are problems. Both are married, although Burton has the more "convenient" marriage, as his wife is the understanding sort. Liz's marriage to singer Eddie Fisher is less so. And therein lies the tale.

For the next 80 minutes a love affair ensues - passionate, humorous, sexy, dangerous - everything a well-conducted love affair should be. They try to hide it - not bloody likely. They get caught, of course. They try to deal with the fallout, not very successfully. They break up. They get back together. Nothing particularly earth-shattering, except, since they are two of the most visible people on the planet at that moment, it is.

It's difficult to imagine today, in the age when everyone sleeps with everyone, often at the same time, that the adulterous goings-on in Rome, right under the Pope's nose, yet, were shocking. The United States Congress even discussed the possibility of blocking Taylor's re-entry into the country. To underline the irony of that, I will simply remind you who the United States Ambassador to the Vatican is, at present. If you don't know, Google it.

That more or less takes care of the plot. Now to the nitty gritty.

Any actress who agrees to play the real-life role of the consummate movie star, who was actually dubbed "the most beautiful woman in the world", and whose face is known in virtually every corner of the globe, has my undying respect. And abject sympathy. As it turns out, the latter is not needed. Lisa Birnbaum, the actress in question, hits it out of the park, to coin a phrase. She doesn't particularly look like Taylor. No one does. But she channels her, getting her inflections, her rhythms, her laugh, exactly, until she has the audience believing she does look like Taylor, and whether she does or not ceases to matter. That's called "acting", folks.

Her scenes "on set" are funny; her scenes off are both comic and tragic, but throughout the play she's true to her character. There's no preening, no coy flirting with the audience, no wink wink, nudge nudge. She's brutally honest, and the audience gets to watch.

Richard Short, "Dick" to her "Liz", matches her step for step. Stalwartly handsome, and fetching in those short Roman kilts, he comes on as bracing as a Welsh breeze off Crib Goch. He gets the cadence of Burton's delivery just right, without resorting to a Music Hall accent. It's delightful to watch him puncture Liz's movie star pretentions with a well-placed prick. It's a match made in casting heaven.

Brian Dykstra as the put-upon director Joe Mankiewicz, plays the part with a world-on-his-shoulders manner that suits perfectly. Adam Gibbs as Eddie Fisher, the cuckhold you love to hate, is sad and hapless by turns. His sets as Eddie Fisher, the singer, were spot-on.

The supporting cast is as sharp as the principals.

CLEO is a sight as well. Scenic Designer Richard Hoover pulls out all the stops with the Cinecitta set piece that serves as the backdrop for the entire performance, towering above the Hubbard Stage in all its gilded glory. It's Hollywood Egyptian on steroids.

The costumes by Alejo Vietti are sumptuous and serviceable by turns. The cloth-of-gold dress at the end of the movie is a tour de force, but the more ordinary full-skirted summer dresses worn by Liz in her off-camera moments really serve her character. Cool, flowing, and low-cut, they suit her perfectly. I believed her more in these scenes than in the on-set ones, oddly.

Which brings us to the dreaded "but". The production is exquisitely detailed, which makes it believable, and that makes a stand-out goof all the more apparent.

In Adam Gibbs' first entrance as Eddie Fisher, I didn't know who he was. Eddie Fisher was famous for his dark curly hair, which fell boyishly over his forehead. Gibbs' hair is light brown, and was slicked back. Why? The Murphy's Law of theater states that if anyone in the audience knows what Eddie Fisher's hair looked like in 1962, that person will be a critic. Get the boy a color and perm, for God's sake.

Curly hair not withstanding, the show is a knock-out, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

The writer and director are to be congratulated for managing to tell the story fully in one 80-minute, no-intermission production. That takes an outstanding economy of line and action, and my hat's off.

CLEO continues through April 29, 2018. Alley Theatre, Hubbard Theatre, 615 Texas Street.

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From This Author Gary Laird