“Tynan” at Studio Theatre


Theater Critics love “Tynan,” the one-man show about the acerbic, outrageous, revolutionary British drama critic-as-hedonistic celebrity now at the Studio Theater.

I don’t mean they’ll be uncritical, although you can’t do much of anything but praise Philip Goodwin, who plays Tynan so well that you think you’re keeping company with the man who’s been dead for thirty years.

Rather, “Tynan” is a piece of theater about a piece of theatrical work, a man often lauded as an important figure in the history of theater in the latter part of the mid-late 20th century, for his energetic, stylish, dead-on and highly-intelligent criticism; for his steadfast zeal in championing new and cutting edge playwrights such as John Osborne and Samuel Beckett; and for his role as literary manager of the National Theater of England, headed by Sir Laurence Olivier.

His writings, made famous in English publications, as well as at the New Yorker, were always stylish, even moving, and sometimes came in the form of verbal missiles when attacking bad performances, bad choices, bad trends, bad direction, or worse, anything mediocre in theater. He was brilliant, trenchant, poetic at times, and he could get away with some of his most devastating judgments because simply put, he was just about smarter than anyone else around and not shy about saying so.

There’s a videotape of Tynan on an episode of Edward R Murrow’s talk show “Small World” of the late 50s and early 60s. He is in the company of Samuel Goldwyn and the Oscar-winning actress Vivien Leigh, Olivier’s wife. He looks like a sharp, intelligent, very thin, chain-smoking porcupine.

He had enemies, but as this production makes clear, the worst one, as is often the case, was Kenneth Tynan himself. He had a penchant for the outrageous for its own sake; he wanted to liberate the country from sexual repression by being perfectly frank about his own obsessions, which turned out to be a penchant for mild sado-masochism. He was the author and producer of a 1960s-1970s theater cause célèbre called “Oh Calcutta”, which can be best be described as intellectual smut, which of course was a huge hit. It contained brief episodes of frontal nudity, part and parcel of the sexual revolution of the times. In today’s age of worldwide internet porn, it is mild stuff indeed, although done with a certain intellectual panache.

Tynan, these days, is a dimly distant force— he’s like a star whose light you can see years in the distance, just not very well. Tynan died of the effects of emphysema, the symptoms of which, along with a tantalizing stammer, are evident in Goodman’s performance.

If you have no taste for or memory of theater history, you won’t learn much from this play, a one-man outing based entirely on the latter-day journals kept by Tynan during a period when most of his best life’s works—except for a series of astonishingly good profiles and writings in the New Yorker—was done.

What you will hear and see is the genuine voice of Tynan—he is here in more ways than as the author of his own life story—and it’s a voice that is pungent, gifted in story-telling and narrative, witty and sharply funny, and even self-deprecating in the predicaments he so often finds himself. His talent presides and resides within a wreck, emotional and physical.

Goodwin, who’s consistently produced outstanding Shakespearean and contemporary performances at the Studio and the Shakespeare Theater, keeps it simple. It is an accumulative performance, where the stories he tells, the announcements he makes, are like layers of clothing, being put on and being shed.

The tone appears right—acidity battling with a showy intellectualism, a kind of superiority over his peers mixed with affection, most notably when he’s talking about Olivier. There are theater tidbits here: Christopher Plummer getting canned from a part because he insisted on doing it his way and the like.

Actually, the more you listen to Goodwin/Tynan, the more a sad, somewhat wasted, frustrated man emerges. He was a raconteur and a bad boy, but not a bad man. Listening to Goodwin speak, talking about the pleasures of his particular obsession, about a lost vacation in Spain which turned out to be a harrowing illustration of Murphy’s law, or being caught in a police raid in a special brothel in Los Angeles, you see a man vaulted into a pitiable Laurel and Hardy movie.

Tynan in vivid rises above it, with dignity if not reputation intact. Goodwin is the one that elevates him to that position, by the precision of his words, the intelligence of his choices, the refusal to overplay the material, by the clarity he achieves in the spoken word. There’s a point where you forget to look at the backdrop projections. You don’t even know that they’re there. Goodwin by this time has convinced you that you’re in the company of Kenneth Tynan, good company, sometimes melancholy—he notes steadily the passing of old friends—but always smart and compelling.

“Tynan” has been at the Studio Theatre until February 13. For more information, visit StudioTheatre.org


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