IMAGE: Left to right: Leo (Brendan Murray), Norton (Ted Culler). Photo by Harvey Levine.
REVIEW • BY STEVE LAROCQUE
If you’re thinking about seeing Silver Spring Stage’s world premiere production of The Emperor of North America – and you should – you might want to consider reading War and Peace first.
OK, maybe not, but if you want to follow some of the twistier turns in the story, you might at least brush up on the basics of Tolstoy’s novel – like, who Pierre and Natasha are. (That way, you’ll understand the parrot jokes.)
The Emperor of North America is mostly about writing: the hack work that writers must do to pay the bills; the serious writing they would really like to do; the bizarre entourage whom the writer must deal with in order to get his work into print and the proceeds into his bank account; and the voices and personages who crowd into his brain as he struggles to put his stories to paper.
Leo (Brendan Murray). Photo by Harvey Levine.
The writer is Leo (Brendan Murray), who stays one step ahead of the bills by churning out novelizations of films, but who secretly longs to write The Serious Book.
Leo informs his hypercalculating agent Sylvia (Pamela Northup) that he has just begun research for such a book: a biography of Joshua Norton (Ted Culler), a real-life 19th Century eccentric who proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States, and who actually got some polite attention (and free theater tickets) from his contemporaries, as well as a turnout of 30,000 mourners at his funeral (historical fact).
Sylvia listens politely to Leo’s project, then launches into her own pitch for the Next Big Thing: a novelization of a new film version of War and Peace.
Leo points out tactfully that War and Peace already is a novel. Undeterred by this information, Sylvia plops a massive screenplay into Leo’s lap, urges him to give it a read, then breezes out, wondering aloud if she can snag Brad (Pitt) for the lead role.
Leo dutifully reads the brick, discovering one howler after another, as actors appear to re-enact travestied scenes from War and Peace. Meanwhile Joshua Norton’s erratic persona intrudes chaotically into Leo’s imagination, making him wonder seriously if he’s losing it.
Left to right: Leo (Brendan Murray), Rita (Lena Winter), Molly (Lenora Spahn), Sylvia (Pamela Northup). Photo by Harvey Levine.
There are other story lines, too – maybe too many. There’s Leo’s mounting angst about the declining mental state of his father (Culler again, delivering verbal shots to splendid comic effect), which morphs into angst about his own mental state as Norton and Dad become conflated in his mind.
There’s the subplot about Leo’s daughter Molly (nicely done by Lenora Spahn), who reveals to her father that she is pregnant, and that she is OK with the pregnancy, but not with the father, whose sole ambition is to become the world’s next great snowmobile salesman.
Finally, there’s Leo’s relationship with Rita (Lena Winter), a real estate agent who seems to be heading out to show a different style of house every time she walks out the door. (Playwright Hischak takes some delicious shots at the pretentious vocabulary of the real estate market.)
Both recovering from toxic ex-marriages, Rita and Leo seem stuck in neutral, both hesitating to commit again.
But things get rolling: daughter Molly works on Dad; Rita soldiers through War and Peace out of loyalty to Her Man, but then blows up at Leo (in what seems like a scene à faire) over his superior intellectualism and verbal glibness. Leo, who is basically a good guy, repents, of course, leading to … but that would be telling.
Sylvia (Pamela Northup). Photo by Harvey Levine.
The task of soldering on with the fairly predictable romance falls to Murray and Winter, while the peripheral zanies get to have much more fun, re-enacting War and Peace and delivering imperial edicts in Erin Bone Steel’s smashing fantasy costumes, but everyone makes the best of what they’re given to do.
The acting is definitely up to the mark: Northup drops movie star names like discarded Kleenex; Murray emotes and agonizes believably (even if the playwright gives him too many Serious Writer lines); Culler pontificates magisterially, yet has a nice comic touch with his quips and asides; Winter is efficient and earnest, but sexy, too; and Spahn makes Molly a nuanced and affecting mother-to-be.
Director Scott Bloom moves the proceedings along efficiently, with one possible exception: the interspersed scenes in which Joshua Norton dictates (to an unseen scribe) a series of letters addressed to historical personages like Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria. Amusing at first, these vignettes became (to me, at any rate) one-note. I was hoping for more variety in the business, as the monologues are clever and, amazingly, historically accurate.
All in all, it’s a lot of fun. The script comes alive with full-blooded characters and a heart-warming story, yet with a minimum of profanity – a welcome, if rare, phenomenon in contemporary theater, which so often sees fit to fill the stage with tedious blue language, then wonders why a new generation of theater patrons isn’t showing up.
By Thomas Hischak; directed by Scott Bloom; produced by Lennie Magida and Jerry Schuchman; set by Andrew S. Greenleaf; costumes by Erin Bone Steele; lighting by Jim Robertson; sound by Scott Bloom. At Silver Spring Stage, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. September 16 – October 1. Fri-Sat: 8 pm; Sunday, September 25 (2 pm). Running time: 2 hours (including one 15-minute intermission).
Cast: Ted Culler, Brendan Murray, Pamela Northup, Lenora Spahn, Lena Winter