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Review: Christopher Plummer, a man of letters, says 'A Word or Two'

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If you've ever said to yourself after being wowed by an actor of Christopher Plummer's caliber, "They sure don't make 'em like that anymore," then you won't want to miss Plummer's one-man show, "A Word or Two," at the Ahmanson Theatre. He more or less explains why.

This 80-minute star vehicle, directed with elegant finesse by Des McAnuff, is less an autobiographical tour of an illustrious thespian's career than an anatomy of a sensibility. It is a love letter to reading and the written word, the building blocks of a classical actor's talent.

The incubation of a great Shakespearean interpreter — and Plummer, renowned for his Iago, Hamlet and King Lear, is incontestably one of the best — starts early. For Plummer it began as far back as his first encounter with Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," the memory of which causes this impossibly dashing and vigorous 84-year-old to erupt in childlike excitement:

"Damn it! I was hooked! Hooked on words, I mean … the color, the music, the intoxication of words."

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Mary McCarthy gave one of her memoirs the title "How I Grew," and this image of a young artist germinating is ever present in Plummer's recounting of his Canadian upbringing. An only child inauspiciously born on Friday the 13th, December 1929, the year of the stock market crash, he was raised by his mother, who left his father "in a strict old-fashioned divorce." Surrounding him were grandparents, a "Panzer division" of aunts and oh-so-much weather.

At home he may have been a holy terror ("I was the Dutch elm disease on my family tree"), but he suffered from "crippling shyness" and took refuge in literature. The long, cold winters were conducive to reading, and without any siblings to play with he made friends with the characters in his books, horsing around with Ratty and Mole from "The Wind in the Willows" and getting into all sorts of jams with Peter and the Lost Boys.

When the shyness left him in his teen years, he fashioned a new identity for himself, collecting epigrams and hoarding bons mots. He borrowed from Oscar Wilde ("A little sincerity is a dangerous thing and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal") and was perpetually on the lookout for wit that would allow him to feel "tough, cynical, cool, sleek and urbane."

An aesthete by nature, he was always more fascinated by the stained glass patterns in church than by the sermons. The Western canon became his religion and the devilish George Bernard Shaw his patron saint. In one of the show's best set pieces, he portrays the devil himself debating Don Juan in Shaw's "Man and Superman."

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Here we get a glimpse of how this actor's worship of dazzling language inspires his own theatrical virtuosity. Plummer's voice caresses words the way a jeweler handles precious stones. His awareness of value bestows value.

His own story seems to interest him less than the stories that opened the floodgates of his imagination. There are anecdotes about his nights carousing with the poet Dylan Thomas and Richard Burton at the White Horse Tavern, the famed West Village pub in New York where Thomas reputedly had his last drink. But there are no juicy tidbits about his experience portraying Captain von Trapp opposite Julie Andrews in the classic movie "The Sound of Music."

A plume of books rises behind Plummer on an attractive set by Robert Brill that visually reminds us with its lectern and desk that "A Word or Two" is more of a special event than a full-scale theatrical offering. The piece, which was built for charity fundraisers, got a second life when it was produced by the Stratford Festival in 2012.

McAnuff's production has the polish we've come to expect from this Tony-winning director, but the show's gleam is all Plummer, who having held this stage almost single-handedly in "Barrymore" has no trouble filling it up now completely on his own.

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Looking every bit the gentleman of letters in a spiffy sports jacket, Plummer moves from reciting verse to impersonating Nabokov to offering a taste of his Shakespearean smorgasbord. Raised in Quebec and at home in French, he breaks out in Gallic song when recalling the tender memory of his boyhood bedtime vigil. Transitions are pulled off with some light comic shtick indicating that for Plummer the library and the music hall were never all that far apart.

Plummer quietly concludes his show with an ardent defense of our literary heritage: "We must implore, beseech, entice, cajole, persuade, induce the children to read everything of value, of beauty while they're young or what's a heaven for?"

He then quotes Emily Dickinson, a fitting thing to do for a performer whose art has been galvanized by poetry.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'A Word or Two'

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 3 p.m. Saturdays and Jan. 26 and Feb. 9; 1 p.m. Feb. 2. Ends Feb. 9.

Price: $20 to $90 (Ticket prices subject to change.)

Contact: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission

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