With its production of “Kean,” Laguna Moulton Playhouse tries to convince us that it is presenting something very high-brow. In reality, it is offering a dull dissertation on a potentially fascinating subject.

The Kean of the title is Edmund Kean, the 19-Century English actor who thrilled audiences with his passionate and naturalistic portrayals of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. The play (written by Alexander Dumas and adapted by Jean Paul Sartre, no less) is a musing on the legends surrounding the man. In three long acts, we see Kean cuckold a count; encourage, then embarrass a novice actress, entertain some tavern folk, suffer a nervous breakdown while performing the smothering scene from “Othello,” and prepare to leave for America in exile. How are these events related to one another? They’re not--and there’s the rub.

Under Arthur Lewis’ direction, the play remains a blur, containing few variations in mood and tempo to put the events of Kean’s life into some kind of emotional context. The cast, all of whom look their roles to a T, bring out few dimensions in their characters, rendering them--and thus the play--static and extremely hard to follow. Further, Lewis only sporadically invokes the magic of theatrical tradition. Such moments, as when Kean and the young actress improvise a scene in his dressing room, are the only occasions where the play comes alive and captures the audience’s imagination.

Douglas Rowe plays Kean as a solid, sensible fellow, a choice that seems at odds with a man whom other characters describe as mirage-like and unpredictable. Yet, for all his straightforwardness, Rowe’s performance is murky--it is difficult to ascertain his concerns and the nature of his passions. Rowe saves his energy for the breakdown scene, but even that would be more potent if we had been given a better idea of the inner forces driving him to such despair.


As the awkward actress, Cynthia Walker makes the most of her comic moments, but for the most part, her character consists of many discrete qualities that have no thread to bind them together. Ralph Richmond is a congenial Prince of Wales, and he incorporates some complexity in his portrayal. Adair Williams’ characterization as the Countess stops at chilly and elegant; and Frank Bollotta, as Kean’s manservant, brings eye-rolling reactions to a role that seems to require understatement.

The sets by Don and Doug Williamson are too cold and spare, including drawing rooms of frosty blues and greens and an antiseptic Drury Lane dressing room that clearly has never known the clutter of greasepaint and brushes. Kathy Pryzgoda’s lighting is impressive, especially in the candle-lit tavern scene, and Mark Turnball’s original score is wonderfully spirited and evocative.

“Kean” continues through March 16 at the Laguna Moulton Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. For information, call (714) 494-0743.