Mark Twain Tonight!
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 8, 2005
A hundred years from now, when "Ann Coulter Tonight!" (or "Al Franken Tonight!"; choose your poison, as it were) turns up on Broadway, is anybody going to be impressed?
My point being, where America once produced humorists, all we seem now to have are pundits. Mark Twain Tonight!, Hal Holbrook's gift to 21st century New Yorkers for—alas!—18 performances only, proves the point in ways you may not be expecting. What do we know about Mark Twain today? The obvious stuff: that he wrote Huckleberry Finn, and other books; that he was a wit. But I certainly didn't appreciate how presciently profound Twain was. Holbrook brings to life a side of this man that is almost breathtakingly edifying to witness at this particular moment. This Mark Twain Tonight! is about a great humanist whose disillusionment was turning him into a great pessimist. The searingly honest observations he makes about the human race feel so contemporary that they constantly stop us in our tracks. Who is so willing, so able, to tell us the truth about ourselves in 2005?
Boy, do we need Mark Twain right now. We need Holbrook too: this actor who pretty much popularized the idea of a one-man show in the first place (in the earliest incarnation of this piece, about 50 (!) years ago) is still just about matchless in executing same. There's no set to speak of; the simplest of costumes; the meager props of a good storyteller (a cigar, an ashtray, a water pitcher, and a glass). No set-up either: Holbrook as Twain ambles out casually, introduces himself with alacrity and good-humor, and starts to talk. We know that everything he says is something that Twain wrote (and the sources are helpfully listed in the program). But it feels like a conversation—a one-sided one, with a brilliant, articulate, provocative old friend. It's a pleasure and a privilege to listen. Trappings, context, gimmickry would just get in the way.
Holbrook's Twain delivers what's expected by enacting a selection from Huckleberry Finn (about Huck's pangs of conscience when he fails to turn in the runaway slave, Jim, who has become his friend), and also by cagily jesting about a variety of commonplaces, from the gullibility of his peers (a throwaway joke about a tour guide in Genoa, Italy who showed visitors two "authentic" skulls of Christopher Columbus) to his own professed proclivities for bad habits (a reminiscence about a time when he was sick and two different friends told him to drink a quart of whiskey as a cure—that's half a gallon, he concludes with a devilish hint of a grin).
But what's on Holbrook's mind is more serious than any of that. The actor has made a very conscious choice to bring his perennial show back to New York this summer, and the material he's included is very deliberately selected. There are two important themes. First, Twain is compelled to warn us against demagoguery in its two most insidious forms, the religious zealot and the politician. (A close third, he contends, is the journalist.) In vignettes that are only half-humorous, he disarmingly chats about how all Republicans are insane, but only Democrats seem to know it—and how all Democrats are insane, but only Republicans know that. In a moment that's eerie (and was met by almost stunned silence), he opines that a man who is convinced that his religion is the only true one will do anything to convince his neighbors of this—he might even blow them up.
But the real heart of what Holbrook-as-Twain wants to tell us is not cautionary. What he wants—what is true of his life story, and what we must take from it—is for us to think for ourselves. "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform," he tells us. The passage from Huckleberry Finn has not been chosen randomly: Twain is determined to make us confront conventional wisdom and decide on our own if it makes any sense.
Holbrook makes it feel not like a lecture, despite the less-than-lighthearted timbre of his particular message; and anyway, to be in the presence of such well-thought-out and elegantly articulated darned good sense is a treat.
Holbrook turns 80 this year (he's delightfully spry, I'm glad to report). This may be the last time Mark Twain Tonight! plays on Broadway; it's legendary, and deservedly so, and for that reason alone worth attending. But the urgent message of this great humane actor and his great humane subject is downright essential.