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The North Carolina premiere of Playing Burton, presented by OdysseyStage Theater and playing Oct. 6-8 at the Chapel Hill Senior Center, provides a juicy part—and probably the most demanding role of his career—for Triangle theater veteran Carroll Credle. Welsh playwright Mark Jenkins’ eye-opening one-man show, which is by turns moderately amusing and almost unbearably painful to watch, is certainly no hagiographic look at the award-winning actor—and Jenkins’ fellow Welshman—Richard Burton (1925-84). Indeed, Playing Burton takes the form of a bloated, boozy, retrospective monologue that the 1961 Tony Award® winner for Camelot and seven-time Academy Award® nominee delivers during his last dissipated days on earth before his premature death, at age 58, of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Jenkins depicts Burton near the nadir of his career, with only two weeks to live, sitting in a hotel room in Santa Monica, CA, smoking five packs of cigarettes a day, and drinking his breakfast, lunch, and dinner from the ubiquitous scotch and vodka bottles that litter the room. Burton still has that wonderfully mellifluous Welsh baritone voice, and demonstrates flashes of the old charisma that made the handsome actor’s stage and screen characterizations so memorable. But hard living, five tumultuous marriages (two of them to the tempestuous Elizabeth Taylor), and bad career choices have made him something of a caricature of the electrifying performer that he once was. Once one of the brightest stars in the Broadway and Hollywood firmament, Richard Burton is now rapidly fading. He is a has-been, a frustrated ham actor furiously smoking and drinking himself into an early grave.
With his flowing Burtonesque mane and penetrating blue eyes, OdysseyStage star Carroll Credle bears an uncanny resemblance to the bloated, boozy Burton at 58; and Credle brings admirable passion—if not always polish—to this larger-than-life role and the sometimes mawkish material that dramatist Mark Jenkins dredges up from Richard Burton’s personal life. As the increasingly sozzled actor/raconteur ribaldly reminisces about his seminal stage performances as Prince Hal, Doctor Faustus, and King Lear and his flashy film roles in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Cleopatra, and Equus, Burton—and Credle with him—gets hammier and hammier. It is hard to know whether the fault lies with Burton, the actor playing Burton, or the playwright; or whether the miniscule Saturday-night audience of five—two of them critics—disconcerted Credle.
It is difficult to play to a virtually empty room, but Carroll Credle never flinched Saturday night. He soldiered on despite the additional burden of having to deliver a near-virtuoso impersonation of someone who was once a household name. Playing Richard Burton is a daunting task for any actor at any level, let alone this OdysseyStage community-theater production, because the Burton in Playing Burton is an emotional powder keg with an extremely short fuse. Moreover, as he slips deeper and deeper into his cups, Burton becomes more and more overwrought as he rehashes his checkered career and meteoric fall from box-office idol—and on- and off-stage George to the most famous Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—to box-office also-ran, cooling his heels in less-than-palatial surroundings.
Carroll Credle, with only the faintest whisper of audience feedback to get and keep his creative juices flowing, nevertheless courageously ran the actor’s gauntlet that is Playing Burton. He was not always completely convincing and he did not always sustain Burton’s distinctive British accent, but Credle was always sincere. His impersonation of the erstwhile King Arthur on stage and Mark Antony on film was not always well honed, but it was heartfelt.
It is hard to tell, based on Saturday evening’s sparsely attended performance, just how much fine-tuning Playing Burton director Nick Karner and star Carroll Credle need to do. But it is considerable. Certainly, this 85-minute monologue—which ran approximately 98 minutes Saturday—needs substantial tightening; and some of Burton’s rambling drunken outbursts need to be moderated for clarity, if for no other reason. Otherwise, watching Playing Burton is like being locked in a room with a garrulous once-famous drunk who drones on and on about people and places and things that, except for their name-dropping value, have little interest to anyone but himself.
OdysseyStage Theater presents Playing Burton Friday-Saturday, Oct. 6 and 7, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 8, at 3 p.m. at the Chapel Hill Senior Center, 400 S. Elliott Rd., Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $10 ($8 students and seniors). 919/929-4493. Richard Burton: http://www.richardburton.com/ (official web site), http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?id=33844 (International Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000009/ (International Movie Database)