Rex & Rex opened last night at the Byrdcliffe Theater, a pillar of the original art colony in Woodstock, NY. Byrdcliffe’s wooden landmark surrounds the set of Rex Harrison’s old armchairs and fireplace. It becomes the forgotten woodshed wherein a life of promiscuity, far too many wives, and other detritus strewn about by fame goes to be handily whipped. Lovingly whipped is more like it. Playwright, director, and co-star Carey Harrison imbues the story of his father with much respect for the damaged man. Feeling and forgiveness comes through with depth, intimacy and understanding beyond reach of the mere biographer. Harrison uses the older, wiser (is he?) Rex to explore the self-critical, insecure man barely held together by the parts he played on stage and the serial dramas that comprised his life.
It is an engaging night at the theater — any theater. The roiling inner life of Rex Harrison is portrayed by a dynamic duo with gusto and grit. Carey Harrison — a formidable presence in his own right — sets a standard fortified by inherited qualities that substantially enliven his portrayal of old Rex. Harrison’s armchair nemesis and co-star, Mick O’Brien, is an exquisite foil to the light-hearted confidence of old Rex. As young Rex, O’Brien’s stumbling mannerisms, speech patterns and hysterical mindset lend a poignancy to the endeavor that makes the entire fantasy seem so bloody real.
Theater is magic. But, never more so than when the set, the script, the actors, the costuming all serve the same demanding master — that is, the audience — who always believes the act of showing up deserves something more. What more, you ask? The noses. What really heightens the poignancy of it all is the matching noses. At first the physical similarity of the two men just seems fitting — medium heights with the old one a couple inches shrunken and both of similar portliness. Then one can’t help notice that both actors have the same nose. The audience seemed, as I did, to accept the uncanny coincidence of it all as though these two actors really were made for these roles — not unlike Rex and Professor Higgins. Whose idea was this prosthetic detail? I imagine Claire Lambe, whose invisible touch as Company Designer and Director usually adds significant flair with her spunky Claireisms — like last year’s row of real weeds that lined the front of the stage for Hedgerow Specimen. The young and old noses were constructed by a fine make-up artist, Jane Rose. There are many reasons to see this play and prosthetic noses is not least among them. Nor, for that matter is the period dress. Karen Flood’s work in costuming is given an enormous boost by the original suits owned by Rex Harrison and worn by his son, the exact size “to the millimeter.” Nice to know that pink pants flaunted by men today bear these mid-century roots.
Many of Rex’s insecurities are present in all of us — ”What if I screw up? End up with the wrong woman, wrong script, penniless”? We all know a cad or two. Driven by the same fears of failure and determined to be the best at whatever they do at whatever cost. They come rightly by the same name-calling that old Rex throws down: “Oh, it’s awfully hard to feel sorry for you, Rex. You’re such a desperately shallow, unapologetically self-regarding ass.” And, there is the self-hatred that comes with the territory — one that relies on the kindness of others to feel sorry for them, to forgive the lack of intimacy, to be ever mindful from whence they came. The pain inflicted upon women Rex snared by the force of his position and personality and the family members unwillingly cast into his drama is recognizable. Still, Rex deserves a special award and, perhaps, this play’s the thing.
Rex Harrison’s life might look like a mess to the outsider, but, true to the personality, in the end it seems he was fine with it all. Rex was not one to reflect or take responsibility and swore to “never regret.” Rex was a victim, I suppose. But, of what? The vicissitudes of fame? Lousy parents, themselves incapable of supportive nurturing? His own demise? Could he not interrupt a destiny that he had no power to create? Could he not listen to the wisdom that gnawed at the edges of his consciousness and walk off set into another kind of life? In the end, he sits on stage, the mere puppet of his former self. Are we all so driven toward an unforgiving destiny? Or, only those of us incapable of walking away from it all (ourselves) in the well-worn shoes of another human being? Rex & Rex, an unempathetic life.
Leave it to playwright, Carey Harrison, to turn a memoir into a four-dimensional chessboard — a past, present and future, brought to life for today’s audience as a mirror to their own existence. Ironically positioned as high comedy, that is, comedy with a dark side, it merits more than a few laughs. As young Rex so aptly puts it: “Everyone gets buggered by their destiny.”
Rex & Rex is written by Carey Harrison, designed and directed by Claire Lambe.
It plays in repertory with a second play, I Won’t Bite You, by the same author at the Byrdcliffe Theater in Woodstock on weekends from June 21 through July 7.
For more about the play, the performance schedule, and directions to the Byrdcliffe Theater visit the “Up Next” page on Woodstock Players website: http://www.thewoodstockplayers.com/Up_Next.php
Susan Alexander Manuso lives and writes in Greenwich Village and Willow, NY.
All photos by Sophie Baker