Buster Keaton rose to the highest heights of film stardom in the 1920s, but the actor known for his extraordinary acrobatic physicality and deadpan visage began a precipitous slide to obscurity after the advent of "talkies" and the box office and critical failure of his film, "The General," now considered one of film's greatest classics.
Keaton's top-of-the-world fame, subsequent fall and personal and professional redemption are the subject of "Stoneface," an audaciously inventive, funny and ultimately moving piece of theater starring French Stewart in the title role at the Pasadena Playhouse through June 29.
Written by the actor's wife, playwright/performer Vanessa Claire Stewart ("Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara"), the play had its first incarnation in 2012 at the 99-seat Sacred Fools Theater, where Stewart is an established member and where the show netted critical acclaim and multiple awards. Mounting the production (with its original cast and director) at the 686-seat Pasadena Playhouse may have been a challenge, but the integrity of the production is intact, as are its notable visual pleasures.
In this telling, Keaton's film life and signature bits of stage business are interwoven and merged with his failed marriages and chronic alcoholism, his abiding friendship with troubled Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, his disastrous decision to sign with MGM and his return to health, new love and an eventual, rewarding comeback.
Covering the years from 1921 to 1951, the play moves back and forth in time, a framework well-realized with film clips, silent movie title cards, new silent film-style footage and other projections, an impeccably authentic piano score composed and played live by Ryan Johnson; and the sterling contributions of the production's design team: Joel Daavid (sets), Jessica Olson (costumes), Jeremy Pivnick (lights), Cricket S. Myers (sound) and master projection designers Ben Rock and Anthony Backman.
Razor-sharp comic and technical timing is essential to pulling off the production's complex filmed and physical elements and it is spot on as the actors make their first entrances in character — Arbuckle (Scott Leggett), Louis B. Mayer (Pat Towne), Joseph Schenck (Jake Broder), Norma Talmadge (Rena Strober), Natalie Talmadge (Tegan Ashton Cohan), and "the hero of our feature," Buster Keaton (Stewart) — and appear to step seamlessly into the projection of a silent movie as filmed versions of themselves.
The creative live action highlights include a chase scene through multiple doors, a bubbly undersea fantasia, the iconic falling house as seen in the Keaton classic, "Steamboat Bill Jr.," brilliantly executed here in a sobering context; and Keaton and Arbuckle serving themselves dinner by means of a Rube Goldberg-esque series of ropes and pulleys inspired by Keaton's 1920 film, "The Scarecrow." (When one of the tightly choreographed moves at the dinner table didn't initially come off as planned opening night, it was all the funnier.)
Stewart doesn't pretend to Keaton's acrobatic skills; his own fully committed physicality suggests them, and he is complemented in particular by stand-outs Cohan, who joins Stewart in one of the play's most demanding scenes of physical comedy, and Joe Fria as Keaton's alter ego younger self, haunting and taunting Keaton with his failures and memories of lost fame. (Guy Picot, regrettably on stage only briefly, is memorable as an older Charlie Chaplin.)
The ingenious design elements, however, at times eclipse the play's emotional resonances and underscore an intermittent slackening of the dynamic between story and visual effects. This is most disappointingly true for talented Daisy Egan's turn as the opportunistic nurse whom Keaton marries in an alcoholic haze, a performance that suffers, too, due to the script's missteps into clunky, expository excess ("how'd you learn to do that, keeping your face so still in all your movies").
But Stewart, most widely known for his goofy role in the hit sitcom, "3rd Rock From the Sun," digs deep throughout. Barring moments of static delay in Jaime Robledo's otherwise fleet-footed direction, it is a wholly realized performance. With his arresting re-creation of Keaton's deadpan persona, comic gifts and underlying pathos, Stewart captures the essence of a man of great talent brought low, stumbling his way to renewal and redemption. The execution of the finale's beckoning sunlit nostalgia is a masterstroke.
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends June 29
Tickets: $54 to $74
More info: (626) 356-7529, pasadenaplayhouse.org
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.