The Wings Theatre is by no means an ideal performance space. Tucked away in a basement on one of the Western-most blocks of Greenwich Village, the theatre is small, with tiny, rickety chairs and an absence of air conditioning. During the performance I saw, there were occasional problems with sound quality, theatergoers were sweating and several audience members continually talked to themselves. None of this mattered, though, as the lights came up on The Rarest of Birds. The 2008-2009 theatre season has just begun, but star Omar Prince delivers a turn that must be remembered at the end of the season as one of its best.
Prince plays late film legend Montgomery Clift in this one-man show, conceived, directed and written by the talented John Lisbon Wood. Clift, the tortured artist with an unfettered commitment to realism who was unfairly locked into comparison with Marlon Brando as one of two dominant actors to emerge during the 1950s’ Method acting era, experienced far more misfortunes than did his counterpart: drug addiction, a crippling lack of sexual confidence, a disfiguring car accident, and an untimely early death.
Rarest – the title comes from a reference made to Clift in a review – puts Clift’s entire life on display, both private and public. Wood sets it in 1962, as the star’s life and luck are already headed on their last lap, on the 1962 set of Freud, the unsuccessful John Huston film. The director has locked Clift alone in a dressing room to sober up and calm down. Clift, in between drinking, pill-popping, and shooting up, turns this time-out into a de facto therapy session with an absent Sigmund Freud, effectively addressing the audience with details of his life and work.
Wood structures this show in a non-linear way, to better mirror the inner workings of Clift’s mind. For instance, Clift talks about working on the late 1950s film Lonelyhearts long before he ever details his problems with earlier films like A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity. The effect can be frustrating for those wanting a strictly chronological interpretation of Clift’s filmography, but his fractured reflections become easy to adjust to.
What is clear is how meticulously researched Rarest is. Wood’s play is comprehensive but too interesting to be merely encyclopedic. He provides anecdotal references to his early work in Red River and The Search; his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor borne from A Place in the Sun; skirmishes with Frank Sinatra on From Here to Eternity and the many battles he had with studio brass, directors, and writers to improve scripts. Clift claims here that his dialogue upgrades in The Heiress are what won Olivia de Havilland an Oscar for the film. (Despite four acting nods of his own, Clift never won an Academy Award).
Wood also chronicles the actor’s deepening chemical dependency and health issues including colitis and dysentery. Perhaps the play’s greatest strength comes when it addresses Clift’s clandestine gay relationships. The actor’s self-doubt about his sexual prowess led to a lifetime of promiscuity and disappointment.
Prince’s performance is so specific, so physically detailed and emotionally bare, it stands as a textbook example of Method acting on par with Clift’s work itself. He makes Clift’s desperation and pain palpable through a series of carefully modulated tics: his inebriated swagger, the glazed look in his eyes, the way he treats his body with equal parts interest and repulsion. Prince makes Clift seem very much like a child who never came close to feeling comfortable with himself. His performance is what constantly drives Rarest and elevates what could have been mere exposition to a real performance.
Rarest is a fitting tribute to one of the all-time greats this craft has ever known. At the performance I saw, a technical glitch caused Prince’s curtain call to be cut short, which is a shame. A performance this dedicated deserves all the recognition it can get.