Shakespearean hunk and rotund genius filmmaker/wine tout face off!

Crazy wife meets witty mistress!

Stammering critic forced onstage to defend reviews!

This just in: Nearly everyone that Orson's Shadow gossips about is dead!

Austin Pendelton's tedious backstage comedy about Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Vivien Leigh, Joan Plowright and Kenneth Tynan centers on the time in 1960 when the powerful London critic, Tynan, persuaded Olivier, then considered the greatest actor on the English stage, to let Welles, pariah of Hollywood, direct him and his mistress Joan Plowright in Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play, Rhinoceros.

The play necessarily assumes that the audience knows who these people were/are (Plowright is still quite alive), an assumption that is probably false for most people under 50. Olivier was married to Vivien Leigh, who was famously unbalanced, a manic-depressive whose eyes always seemed lushly vacant. Two famous actors, one nuts, one egomaniacal are combustible enough, but more so when you add in a young, talented actress, Plowright, who was Olivier's lover and eventual third wife.

It also assumes that we consider Ionesco's plays radically modern (as they were half a century ago) and therefore at odds with the Shakespearean sensibility Olivier had built his career on. And, too, that we understand that his stage technique was legendary but quite unsuited to modern drama about the common man. Ironically, it is probably Vivien Leigh who is best remembered by the general public, and then for her movie career (Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, Blanche duBois in A Streetcar Named Desire).

Susan Wilder's evocation of Leigh, with all her neurasthenic glamour is remarkable. Her seductive moment with Tynan over cigarettes - both of them dying of lung diseases - is spectacular, as is her knockout of an exit line (no spoilers).

Brent Harris gets Sir Larry's voice and the rhythm of his speech - mannered and charismatic - perfectly. As Joan Plowright, Rachel Botchan misses the twinkly coquette quality and tricky voice, but provides a fine acting demonstration when she gives two different readings of the same line, one the way Welles wants her to do it, and one the way Olivier wants her to.

As Orson Welles, Wilbur Edwin Henry, casts too pale a shadow - I felt very little sense of his power or his self-defeating intensity. Kenneth Tynan's dramatic criticism is still famous (he also hated Ionesco, a fact the play ignores), and Joe Hickey's portrayal seems to confuse and complicate his motives. Derick Loafmann plays Sean, a fictional stagehand.

James J. Christy directs this, Philadelphia Theatre Company's last show in the sweet but uncomfortable jewel box, Plays & Players Theater. Next season they will inaugurate their new house, the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.