From his turns in early Justin Tanner plays to his long-running role on the television sitcom, “3rd Rock from the Sun,” French Stewart has established himself as an immediately recognizable character actor, with “tired” and true tics -- knowing squint, twee hand gestures -- that have become synonymous with his persona.
Now forget any preconceptions you may have had about this actor. In “Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton,” in its world premiere at Sacred Fools, Stewart has left his bag of tricks behind the stage door. In the eponymous central role, he displays a comical gravitas entirely fitting to his subject, combined with sheer physical virtuosity that is, quite simply, a revelation.
The play was written especially for Stewart by his wife, Vanessa Claire Stewart (nee Smith), co-creator and star of “Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara,” which also premiered at Sacred Fools before going on to extended runs at larger venues -- as indeed, one suspects, could be the trajectory of this current production. Inspired collaborators, the playwright and her director Jaime Robledo imbue what could have been a standard bio-play with remarkable inventiveness and style.
Supported by a virtuosic design team, Robledo delivers a staging best described as surreally creative, complete with Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions and live silent film “clips,” with titles on an upstage screen. The performers, buoyed by music director Ryan Johnson’s live period piano music, all possess the spot-on timing of seasoned vaudevillians.
The cast includes Scott Leggett in a heartbreaking turn as Keaton’s close friend, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and Joe Fria as the young Keaton, who berates his older self for his collapse into alcoholism and penury. The tone of the play varies from the antic to the tragic, yet as Keaton wanders through the alcoholic wreckage of his life, the drollery never flags, nor does the poignancy.
“Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton,” Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 30. $25. (310) 281-8337. www.sacredfools.org. Running time: 2 hours.