By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Sometimes, instead of thinking about the work I continually put off, I spend time worry that pre-internet history will soon fadeaway in the mists of time. If people can’t get the information in the palm of their hand, would they ever actually scour a library?
I’m not talking about “history” history – i.e. the American Revolution, the reign of the Stuarts, the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire.
I mean our ephemeral past, the sort of thing smeared all over social media today with such ferocity … the utterly forgotten tomorrow. Will pre-21st century cultural history be lost forever when the people who lived it are all dead and the next generation can’t be bothered to find out?
Not if the folks behind The Last Word have anything to say about it. They’re bringing to life a very small, but remarkably fascinating, corner of the 20th century; Quentin Crisp.
The Last Word continues through February 16. City Theatre, South Side. 412/431-CITY. www.citytheatrecompany.org
Born in 1908, Crisp was gay man in Britain when, in fact, such a thing was brutally illegal. It wasn’t only that Crisp dyed his hair, painted his nails and did everything he could to challenge the rigid gender stereotypes of merry olde England, he was very vocal about it. Crisp, a member of what we once called the “demi-monde,” used his outré personality, shocking conversation and calculated audacity as passage into the small, but influential, arts scene in London. It was his 1968 autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, and the 1975 television movie version (starring John Hurt) which brought a mainstreamaudience and with his other books, one-man shows and attendance at any gathering that would have him, by the 1970’s, Crisp was the most famous gay man in England.
And at an age when most people retire (73), Crisp moved to New York City and in 1981 started the whole process all over again. As the “gay” movement of the 70’s and 80’s became an increasingly visible and vocal one, Crisp rode that wave withbooks, lectures, films, TV appearances, public events and writings. My favorite Crisp quote from that time was adescription of Bette Davis he wrote in his monthly “Christopher Street” magazine column: “Miss Davis had eyes like a roll-top desk.”
His remarkable journey reached its terminus when, in 1999, he died at age 91… but, true to form, talking right up until the very end. With poet Phillip Ward, Crisp was working on yet another autobiography, The Last Word, and now, in collaboration with Pittsburgh theater’s multi-hyphenate Brian Edwards, Ward has turned the book into a one-man show, featuring Edwards as Crisp in a production directed by Spencer Whale.
The Last Word is a two-act piece that, in reality, is more a lecture than play; it’s Crisp/Edwards and nearly two hours of bon mots, epigrams, aphorisms and reflections. In other words, it’s the “Evening with Quentin Crisp” that Crisp never got to perform.
There’s a not-unpleasant rambling quality to the show; someone getting along in years hop-skipping around in reminiscences and, whatever else you can say about Crisp, he lived an interesting life around interesting people.
I wouldn’t be the first to point out that Crisp was something of an acquired taste and you really need to be invested in his legacy to spend this much time with him. Last Word is a static show after all – nothing actually happens in it – and from time to time that stasis can be uninvolving. I eventually found the first act a bit repetitive and airless, but the second act does provide a bit more dramatic chew when Crisp seems to acknowledge that his Edwardian-era views on sexuality left him behind as the queer movement gathered steam in the 90’s. In subsequent rewrites I’d offer the completely unasked-for-advice of turning the work into a one-act and pruning some of Crisp’s more obscure observations. A tighter script will, I think have a bigger impact.
Edwards, as an actor, has set for himself such a huge task – how to find the reality of playing someone who has spent their life creating a pose? Edwards does it with a knowing intelligence; he’s at his best when delivering one of Crisp’s more outlandish quips then, with raised eyebrow, scanning the audience for reaction and immediately classifying who’s the offended by the pose and who’s in on the joke.
It’s slightly problematic that Edwards looks to be at least 40 years too young for the role; part of Crisp’s “appeal” was hearing the past from someone who lived it and Edwards (or any young actor) obviously cannot replicate that. The ruminations of The Last Word belong to someone near the end of living while Edwards is, thankfully!, going to be with us for some years to come.