Behind an Actor's Eyes

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

When's the last time you saw a silent movie?

You know, the piano score, the luscious black and white, the wonderfully melodramatic acting. And the convention that's so oddly shocking in our world of ever-present audio - the title card with dialogue. There's such a beautiful elegance to the silence - the mouths moving without making a sound. The guessing at what they are actually saying - and then, at least for me, the let down when you read what they actually said. But then there's the physical comedy of the greats - like Buster Keaton.

Playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart's new play at Sacred Fools is deeply indebted to silent films in ways that make it both as rich and as frustrating as its source.

Her title, "Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton," serves as an apt synopsis of this biographical journey. We begin with Buster as a kid on the Vaudeville circuit and ride the roller coaster of his fame, alcoholism, artistic comprise, and finally critical reincarnation.

The play, in both its structure and direction experiments with the very conventions of vaudeville and silent film. There are pantomime segments with projected title cards. There's a live piano accompaniment. There are scenes where the actors speak - 'talkies' if you will. There are sequences where the characters step into - and out of - film clips. There are chase scenes, doppelgangers and a half dozen acting styles. It's dizzyingly ambitious, if not always entirely successful.

At the play's heart is the promise, like any good biography, of getting a glimpse behind the scenes - to not just the details of a life but to its heart. What could be a more tantalizing subject than the inscrutable deadpan of Buster Keaton? What's going on behind those eyes? What isn't he saying? The script succeeds at drawing the outlines of Keaton's life but it gets so caught up in the facts that it only hints at its depth.

The play's most transcendent moments happen, maybe fittingly, in silence. There are homages to the physical comedy of Buster Keaton that capture not only the genius of the original films but also the spectacle of live theater.

What makes the play worth seeing is the witty and profound performance of French Stewart as Buster Keaton. Mr. Stewart is probably best known for the broad comedy of shows like 3rd Rock from the Sun. I'll admit, while I've giggled at his comedy in the past, I've never been moved by it.

In Stoneface, Mr. Stewart distinguishes himself as not only a physical comedian with the fluid grace of a dancer but also as an actor capable of capturing all the pathos of a shattered life with nothing more than a slow, silent head turn.

In the end, Stoneface succeeds in revealing the remarkable depths of an actor - but that actor isn't Buster Keaton. It's French Stewart.

Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton plays at Sacred Fools in Hollywood through July 15.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours with an intermission.

Banner: (L-R) French Stewart (Buster Keaton) and Scott Leggett (Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle) in Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton. Photo by Shaela Cook