In Lost Creatures, local playwright Melissa Lucero McCarl imagines a meeting between two highly theatrical figures of the last century. The first is Kenneth Tynan, a theater critic whose brilliant writing brought him early fame. Guardian reviewer Michael Billington recently wrote that reading the book of essays that Tynan released in 1950, He Who Plays the King, was a transformational experience. In those years, giants like Laurence Olivier (he “pecks at the lines, nibbles at them like a parrot biting on a nut,” Tynan wrote of one of Olivier’s performances), John Gielgud (“the general aspect of a tight, smart, walking umbrella”) and Vivien Leigh, whose Cleopatra presented “a glibly-mown lawn where her author had imagined a jungle,” walked the London stages, and Tynan described their work with vivid intelligence. But he also became tired of the well-made, three-act, country-estate plays of the time and embraced the working-class rebellion expressed in John Osborne’s convention-busting Look Back in Anger. Tynan was around when Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot first came out, though he didn’t quite get it, and also for the debut of Harold Pinter’s obliquely mysterious works. He himself was a dramatic figure: glamorous, narcissistic, privileged, and also a sadist with a lifelong interest in spanking and a taste for violence against women.
Then there was silent-film star Louise Brooks, whose seductive performance in two 1929 movies, Pandora’s Box and The Lost Girl, fueled the fantasies of thousands of men. She left Hollywood and eventually retired to a reclusive life in Rochester, New York. In 1979, Tynan wrote a long homage to Brooks for the New Yorker called “The Girl in the Black Helmet” — a reference to her dark, glossy bob of hair — that renewed interest in the star and her work. It’s the meeting between these two that McCarl dramatizes in Lost Creatures, now being given its world premiere by And Toto Too, a Denver company focusing on work by women.
Neither Kenneth Tynan nor Louise Brooks is a household name these days, but McCarl brings them to interesting life. At the play’s opening, Tynan (Mark Collins) is standing in Brooks’s doorway, preparing for their meeting while she crankily attempts to ignore his persistent knocking. In his early fifties at the time of their actual interview, Tynan was suffering from the emphysema that killed him a year later. Brooks (Billie McBride) was in her seventies, her stardom long behind her; she was fighting arthritis, writing sharp, candid essays and drinking heavily. McCarl’s dialogue, using some direct quotations from the works of both, reveals that Brooks was every bit Tynan’s intellectual match. She was an avid reader and a lover of music. She once danced with Martha Graham, though she also worked as a chorus girl for Florenz Ziegfeld; she had a brief affair with Charlie Chaplin. Their witty, literate talk is one of the great pleasures of McCarl’s play.
What happens between Brooks and Tynan? Nothing very much, though Tynan implies that something pretty sexy is about to occur when he addresses the audience in a brief, roguish monologue at the end of the first act. Reference is made to spanking; at one point, Tynan dons one of Brooks’s garments along with a wig of her iconic hairstyle and poses coyly, but the moment is brief, and there’s no particular frisson between the two of them. Perhaps they’re past it. Do they sleep together? Lost Creatures leaves this ambiguous — though after all the sparring, spatting and philosophizing, they do end up cuddling on Brooks’s bed.
Meanwhile, Lulu herself, in the person of Annabel Reader, is on hand, a memory of Brooks’s seductive past who is unseen by the protagonists, a younger self who teases, comforts, offers an occasional prop, slides sinuously across furniture and brings a flirty dimension to the action. A creature of the silent-film era, Lulu never speaks.
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McBride and Collins are fine in the lead roles, but there’s something missing in the overall performance, directed by Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski. Collins (himself an excellent onetime critic) takes on a couple of Tynan’s mannerisms, along with his long-limbed, smooth way of moving and English accent — but Tynan needs to be magnetic and larger than life, where Collins is for the most part gently low-key. McBride has chosen not to mimic the real Brooks’s intonations and gestures. Both performances need more detail, specificity and fierceness — even if repressed.
This is a production that should be seen, but leave yourself some extra time if you go. Lost Creatures plays in The Commons, a new performance space in the Denver Performing Arts Complex that has no signage, either at street level or inside the building itself. My companion and I spent a good twenty minutes walking hopelessly up and down Champa and around the complex before finding it. Lost creatures, indeed.