Wednesday, February 1, 2017

128. Review: GEORGIE: MY ADVENTURES WITH GEORGE ROSE (seen January 31, 2017)

“Georgie Boy”

Ed Dixon, a talented writer-actor-singer nearing 70, is the vigorous creator-star of this first-rate Off-Broadway solo show about his nearly 20 years of friendship with the great British character actor George Rose. The piece, which premiered at Arlington, VA’s, Signature Theatre, is chockfull of the kind of backstage gossip theatre fans drink by the bucket while also including a tragic chaser of room-spinning proportions.

Ed Dixon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
I first heard of Rose in the spring of 1962 when I was a college senior directing and acting in an evening of Shakespeare scenes compiled by the head of the Brooklyn College Theatre Department. He had been inspired by Rose’s performance in the 1961 Broadway production of A Man for All Seasons, in which Rose played the Common Man. The Common Man—oddly omitted from the 2008 Frank Langella revival—is a narrator who uses elements he removes from a trunk to play multiple small roles while taking us through the story of Sir Thomas More. The conceit of our Shakespeare evening was for me to be a kind of common man tying the disparate scenes together.

I never did see Rose’s Common Man but I got to see him in many later Broadway productions, where he was typically the most distinctive presence, even though relegated to “character” parts as opposed to being the leading man. With a richly resonant voice capable of ascending to the most aristocratically plummy or descending to the coarsest Cockney, he was as colorful and theatrical as they come, but always firmly within the confines of truthfulness and believability. He was known mainly for comedy, both straight and musical, won two Tony Awards, and was nominated for a third, although he turned it down because it was for best supporting actor in My Fat Friend. Rose, you see, thought he should have been given the award for best actor, not supporting actor.
Ed Dixon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
This story about Rose’s Tonys is one of many in Dix’s loving, anecdote-filled memoir about his relationship with the eccentric actor, a bibulous, openly gay man with a penchant for acidic profanity (“Rex Harrison is a fucking cunt”) who could be just as funny offstage as he was on. Dix, nearly thirty years younger than his idol, was eternally grateful that Rose chose to befriend him, and even became the actor’s voice teacher when he was preparing for a major role. Rose, though, had some bizarre proclivities, such as keeping wild animals in his Greenwich Village apartment (Dix mentions two mountain lions, but other sources describe different beasts).

Rose’s most disturbing tendencies, however, emerge late in the piece and are connected to the shocking manner of his death near the home he owned in the Dominican Republic. The tragic circumstances of his much-publicized demise are necessarily trimmed for the play but interested readers can learn much more about them here.  

Dix first met Rose in the early 70s when he was cast in a touring production of The Student Prince in which Rose played the comic role of Lutz. Given carte blanche by the management to ad lib as he wished, Rose appears to have used his turn for a nightly display of spontaneous hilarity that made it impossible for those on stage with him to keep from breaking up. The difference between a comic genius and an ordinary comic actor became apparent when Ray Walston temporarily replaced Rose and couldn’t raise a single chuckle.
Ed Dixon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The Loft at the Davenport Theatre, whose last production arranged the space in alley style, has been converted by designer-director Eric Schaeffer into a proscenium theatre, with bulbs lining the arch and the stage itself dressed with a single chair placed in front of the pin rail and hand lines one sees in the wings of traditional theatres. Chris Lee’s multifaceted lighting helps enormously to underline the play’s many nuances.  

As Dixon walks about or sits during his carefully crafted, 90-minute performance, he regales us with stories of Rose’s personal oddities and theatrical performances, frequently lapsing into impressions of the actor both as he was in private life and in moments from several of his great performances, including The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Pirates of Penzance, and My Fair Lady. The impressions are just that, impressions; they give you a sharp sense of Rose’s manner and style, but stop just short of fully capturing the magic that made him different from British stars with a similarly campy flair, like Cyril Ritchard.

Other celebrities also intrude into the name-dropping narrative, so you get bits and pieces of, for example, Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Noel Coward, and Richard Burton. All are clear enough to indicate who they are but that’s about their limit. Dix is charming, well-varied, highly expressive, and perfectly spoken. For all his sincerity, though, the fourth wall of “performance” sometimes stands between complete connection with his audience.

There’s plenty to enjoy in Georgie: My Adventures with George Rose even if you don’t know who Rose was. The real beneficiaries of Dixon’s efforts, however, will be older Broadway theatregoers and theatre professionals to whom Rose’s artistry brought joy and laughter from the 60s through the 80s. This Rose by another name may not smell as sweet as the original but for most audiences it should certainly smell sweet enough.


The Loft at the Davenport Theatre
354 W. 45th St., NYC
Open run