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Word Play: The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Literature

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A Word or Two Theatre Review 

In John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King Christopher Plummer plays author Rudyard Kipling, whose novella is adapted in that 1975 epic. This has proven to be a bit of prophetic casting because in Plummer’s play A Word or Two the Oscar/Tony/Emmy award winner reads a bit aloud from Kipling, as he does from numerous other authors’ texts. Plummer does so because, to turn a Kipling-esque phrase, the veteran thespian is celebrating the scribed and spoken word in this one-man show he wrote, as well as performs.

Words give shape to and are the distilled essence of human thoughts and emotions as expressed in written and vocalized form. In terms of conveying meaning words are the Swiss precision timing of the human mind. From 1965’s The Sound of Music, wherein Plummer rather memorably played Captain Von Trapp in that anti-fascist classic musical through his Oscar winning turn in 2010’s pro-gay rights Beginners and beyond, the 84-year-old stalwart of stage and screen (both big and little) has been an excelsior of oral expression and interpretation of those letters printed on the page that he gives such eloquent, elegant voice to.

I don’t know about you, but often, when I listen to TV or the radio I hear some presenter, public speaker or other butcher the English language. For instance, when the phrase “wreak havoc” is used the first word is regularly mispronounced as “wreck,” when I believe “wreak” should rhyme with speak. So, as a writer and lover of language, I was thrilled by Plummer’s plumbing the depths of the written and spoken word, with his defense of literature on the page and when read aloud. (So, apparently, were many of my fellow theatergoers, who gave the Ontario-born actor a standing ovation during his curtain call.)

A Word or Two consists largely of Plummer sharing and reciting from the works of his favorite writers. Among them are Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, George Bernard Shaw, Archibald MacLeish, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams and W.H. Auden -- who, as Plummer himself confesses onstage, he has no idea why he rather whimsically depicts Auden speaking with a Southern drawl. The poet was born in England, where he attended then later taught at Oxford (the one in the U.K., not the other one in Mississippi of Faulkner fame). When Auden did live in the U.S. it was mostly at Manhattan -- so much for Plummer’s caprice.

Kipling is not the only author this poet, bard and book-besotted actor has depicted throughout his, literally, storied career. In the 1960 Sunday Showcase TV series Plummer portrayed Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the renowned Supreme Court Justice who was also a voluminous letter writer and the author of books, as well as of key legal opinions (such as the beloved ruling that people who use their not-so-smartphones during live performances should be immediately guillotined). In 1989 Plummer played the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, author of the (in)famous Lolita, in a TV short called Nabokov On Kafka. In Oliver Stone’s 2004 Alexander Plummer was Aristotle and was Oscar nommmed for his 2009 portrayal of Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station.

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Plummer has also depicted numerous popular characters of the canon, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Prospero to Cyrano de Bergerac to Sherlock Holmes. And in 1999 he played 60 Minutes’ interrogator-in-chief Mike Wallace in The Insider and appears in 2011’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and in 2013’s Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight. His co-star of 2014’s Elsa & Fred, Shirley MacLaine, attended the premiere.

A Word or Two is rather imperceptibly directed by two-time Tony Award winner Des McAnuff, who, according to the playbill, has helped to make the piece, which Plummer has previously presented from time to time, “a proper production.” I assume this means that the director has given the show more shape and filled things out. Set designer Robert Brill’s staircase composed entirely of what is supposed to be books extends towards the ceiling -- or, perhaps the sky -- imaginatively captures the essence of the playwright/performer’s work on what is otherwise a somewhat bare stage, with trees on Stage left. There are also some projected images by video designer Sean Nieuwenhuis.

If I have any reservation about this production it is that the Canadian Plummer’s perception and expression of literature, written and spoken, is limited to the Western canon, while Africa, South America, Asia and Oceania also have immense contributions in this realm, as well -- even if they are not always in, well, the king’s English. There is indeed a wider world of words out there to delight and move the eye and ear. But having said that, A Word or Two is a sublimely enchanting opportunity for lovers of linguistics to hear the live elocution of one of our greatest actors still trodding the boards and giving voice to the bards and poets. Thanks goodness that someone -- especially a thesp of Plummer’s stature, prowess and renown -- is presenting this piece in praise of the written and spoken word. Christopher Plummer’s celebration of the written word as spoken is letter perfect, and this cultural treasure is a veritable oracle of expressiveness, simply a joy to behold.

A Word or Two plays Tuesdays through Thursdays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 3:00 p.m., through Feb. 9 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. For more info: www.centertheatregroup.org/; (213)628-2772.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

The new book co-authored by Ed Rampell is “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” See:http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.