Before we bring you our regularly scheduled theater review of Christopher Plummer’s solo show “A Word or Two,” a word or two of admiration are in order. Or maybe it’s envy. Heck, how about a benediction.
May we all, upon reaching the age of 84, have the faculties to remember and recite our favorite literary passages, whether they be verses, limericks, speeches from “Hamlet” or quotes from literary critics. And may our limbs propel us effortlessly around a stage as hundreds of people watch and hang on our tales. Let us all be able to bring up the subject of mortality, confess that it “scares us (expletive)” and versify it, all the while as we look like we’ve got 100 in our sights.
In other words, may all of us when we become octogenarians have our own version of “A Word or Two” bursting to emerge, and may there be people around to listen and applaud for a very long time both before we start and after we conclude.
In writing and arranging “A Word or Two,” which comes to the Ahmanson following a 2012 run at the Stratford Festival, Plummer may have envisioned a glimpse into his life as well as into his literary inspirations. For that kind of insight, however, one might do better checking out his autobiography “In Spite of Myself” (which this critic has not read.) In his play, Plummer largely lets his favorite writers sort of tell his story. So much of the play is told in quotes, verses or passages and so seamless is the move between Plummer’s dialog to his sources that you’ll need a rhyme to signal that the performer has left his own voice. Or an accent. Plummer uses many dialects of all ages, genders and nationalities. He’s a kid, a French girl, the Bible’s King Harod mincing about with a fan and sunglasses. “Why the hell am I doing this with a Southern accent” he says and bang! we’re back with our host.
Such glimpses into the man, from the man are welcome. We know he can memorize and knock the stuffing out of a passage by A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll and company. The Plummerisms are less forthcoming although “I paced the halls of my mother’s womb waiting for the light to turn green” ain’t shabby.
To be fair, the structure of an 80 minute solo evening containing this many sources must needs be fairly well defined for any actor – let alone an 84 year old – to deliver it five times a week. And director Des McAnuff, who formerly ran the Stratford Festival and who has directed Plummer in several productions, has done this one-man show before quite successfully (with Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays”).
Plummer can do folksy as deftly as manic or majestic, but, again, neither the piece’s structure nor its backdrop in any way suggest that this dean of classical stage (he never mentions or alludes to movie work) is “unplugged” here in our living room. Nobody ever accused the Ahmanson of intimacy, and Plummer’s scripted attempts to isolate an audience member or two for a stage bit feel forced. He’s moving between three different chairs (one a director’s chair, another an office-y swivel number), all of which is dwarfed by an enormous, gravity-defying column of books that sweep skyward like a coiled snake (truthfully, those books more closely resemble unwrapped department store clothing gift boxes and they serve no other purpose than to conceal a prop or two). Add a few leafless trees (the white and gray color scheme of Robert Brill’s set suggests winter) and a few projections, and your scenery is complete.
Armed as he is with his a lifetime’s worth of words from some pretty decent wordsmiths, Christopher Plummer has our attention. For a word or two or as many as he is generous enough to impart.
“A Word or Two” plays 8 p.m. Tue.-Thur., 3 p.m. Sat.-Sun.; through Feb. 9 at 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. $20-$90. (213) 972-4400, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.