The Rarest of Birds
nytheatre.com review by Jason S. Grossman
June 8, 2008
Montgomery Clift was the exceptional Oscar-nominated film actor particularly known for the brooding sensitivity and vulnerability he brought to his working-class roles. His meteoric rise and fall as a Hollywood leading man and his short tragic life make for an ideal subject of study. Writer/director John Lisbon Wood brings Clift's tortured life to the stage with the one-man show The Rarest of Birds.
The setup of the story is simple. At the top of the play we're told that it is 1962 and Clift's life is in a downward spiral due in large part to his drug addiction and failing health. We are taken to the set of the film Freud where director John Huston, fed up with Clift's antics, has just locked Clift in his dressing room. This is where the entire play takes place. From there, Clift alternately reminisces, acts out, reenacts altercations with famous directors, drinks, pops pills, and injects Demerol.
Wood's script is comprehensive and includes many facets of Clift's social and working life. It's all here: Clift's boundless work ethic, his alcohol and drug addiction, his bouts of colitis and dysentery, the car accident which permanently fractured his matinee idol looks, and his agonizing struggles with his homosexuality.
Wood does well to bring out Clift's personality and tortured existence. Ultimately, nothing was as important as his work as an actor. He was forever striving to find inner truth in his acting, accepting nothing less than truly becoming the characters he played. He researched and perfected every detail of his movie roles. In fact, it seems the only high points in this play (and in Clift's life) are praise from critics or peers about his acting. There is also an unstated yearning in Wood's script; it conveys an undeniable sadness about Clift. The play successfully explains the movie legend and his myriad of failings and ultimately evokes our sympathy for him.
The specific dramatic tension of Clift's current situation (being locked in his dressing room) is discarded early in the play. The script becomes essentially a varied monologue about Clift's life told in the first person. The text is somewhat exposition-heavy: we are told a lot about Clift's film career and the key people throughout his life. At points in the play it seems like the solo actor is a narrator educating the audience about Clift's life instead of embodying him completely throughout.
Wood's plot device of having Clift talking to the real-life Sigmund Freud is potentially intriguing, but falls a bit short. The entire play is Clift's confession and to have him address the famous psychologist periodically doesn't work as well as it could have.
Omar Prince gives a touching, dignified performance as the tormented Clift. He comes across well as an actor driven wholeheartedly by his art. Prince conveys a compassion and respect for this man he is portraying even while he's shooting up. His remarkable attention to detail and subtle nuances might very well have been appreciated by Clift himself. In Prince's eyes, we can see Clift's near insatiable passion for his work.
His characterizations of the various people in Clift's life are excellent. His depiction of Elizabeth Taylor, one of Clift's dearest friends, in particular is quite moving. Prince also delicately straddles the narrative line subtly coming in and out of a semi drug-induced state (there is a lot of pill popping and drinking) to relay Clift's life story.
Prince has a great deal of comfort on the stage as a solo performer. There is nothing strained or excessive in his work here. However, there are moments his voice dips softly and he is almost too casual. Consequently the energy of the play drops, and we lose some of the emotional impact of this otherwise heartbreaking story.
The set is bare save for a few set pieces and some chairs allowing the actor to create scenarios effectively. A varied lighting design could enhance this play.
Fans of Montgomery Clift should enjoy this modest production. The behind-the-scenes insights into such film classics as A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity are fascinating. Clift's confrontation with Frank Sinatra at a party for example is riveting. And we can draw conclusions about what might have been: Clift had a keen understanding of filmmaking and could have become a great director.