BOTTOM LINE: An impressionistic and intriguing collage of the turbulent life of Peter Sellers, with an engaging performance by David Boyle.
One wonders what motivated British playwright Carl Caulfield to take on the daunting subject of Peter Sellers. The timing, at least, seems perfect; the chameleonic actor died exactly 30 years ago at the age of 54, shortly after his second Academy Award nomination. Just before being struck down by a heart attack, he was the subject of a Time Magazine cover story titled "Who Is This Man: The Many Faces of Peter Sellers." In 2005, he was voted #14 in a list of the top 20 greatest comedians by fellow comedy insiders. Peter Sellers was an artist who deserves to be remembered and appreciated.
He was, however, notoriously elusive and enigmatic. During a 1977 appearance on The Muppet Show, he told Kermit "There is no me. I do not exist." Nevertheless, a 1995 biography spawned a 2004 biopic, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, with Geoffrey Rush in the title role and an all-star cast. What can we learn from Being Sellers, an "endearing portrait" of a genius who is both unknowable and overdone?
Caulfield gives us a tightly woven hour of information, blessedly free of "And then I acted in…" exposition. We are in a Purgatorial hospital room where the caustic, imperious Sellers "must face up to the fact that he has no soul." He yells for a nurse who, Godot-like, never comes. He complains loudly about having no visitors while looking right at the audience. Inhabiting his most famous characters, he interrogates and coerces himself into confronting the ugly truth: "A spoiled little boy, that's what you were, not some tortured genius! A spoiled little boy!"
As Sellers, David Boyle gives a gives an energetic, mercurial performance. Sellers' gift of impersonation is in full glory, and we are treated to excellent imitations of Winston Churchill, Peter Lorre and others. Boyle also skillfully evokes many of Sellers' indelible characters including Inspector Clouseau and Dr. Strangelove. If Boyle isn't quite as adept at communicating the need and vulnerability beneath Sellers' quicksilver surface, perhaps it's because he and director Simon Green are taking their cue from Clouseau's line to Sellers, "Is it my fault you only played superficial characters?"
There are many clever lines and telling images. "A million stale odours, that's my childhood." "I know there's plenty of fish in the bowl, but there's nothing at the end of my hook!" There are also some random, even jarring elements. Why does Sellers imitate Kenneth Mars in The Producers, a movie he had no apparent connection with? What is the purpose of several lengthy Shakespearean monologues in the style of Gielgud, Olivier and Burton? The production ends with the Glenn Miller song "In the Mood," which seems arbitrary unless you know that Sellers hated the song and yet requested that it be played at his funeral. (Something I learned later from Wikipedia.) There are also just enough unfamiliar names and British phrases to make even this American Anglophile feel a bit put off.
Perhaps a totally coherent portrait of Sellers is not possible. The man was a mass of fears, impulses and obsessions. If Being Sellers prompts a renewed interest in his films, it will have succeeded admirably. I already have his greatest triumph, Being There, in my Netflix queue. As Chance the gardener, Sellers achieved "the pinpoint-sharp exactitude of nothingness." In the strange case of Peter Sellers, nothing is something indeed.
(Being Sellers plays through Sunday, December 12, 2010 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th Street, as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8:30PM, Saturdays at 2:30PM and 8:30PM and Sundays at 3:30PM and 7:30PM. Tickets are $25. To purchase tickets call Ticket Central at 212.279.4200 or go to www.59e59.org . For more information, visit www.britsoffbroadway.com.)