BOTTOM LINE: The superb Geraint Wyn Davies is a persuasive and compelling Dylan Thomas in this one-man show about the great Welsh poet and sensualist.
"Do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rave at close of day/Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
These lines from poet Dylan Thomas provide the basis for Leon Pownall's play Do Not Go Gentle, featuring the gifted actor Geraint Wyn Davies. Thomas was a towering and tortured figure who was as famous for his drinking as for his writing. When he died in New York in 1953 at the age of 39, the cause of death was listed as "insult to the brain." Do Not Go Gentle finds Thomas alone in Purgatory, where he reflects, confesses, burns, raves, rages, and - of course -drinks.
Thomas was well known for being a versatile and dynamic speaker, especially in his readings of his own work. As he says in the play, "If you're a bad poet, you'd better be a good actor." Wyn Davies, himself a Welshman, is an awfully good actor, and the ideal interpreter of this colorful, contradictory character. Sauntering about the stage in a rumpled linen suit - the costume of the Bohemian writer - he evokes a man who is equally awe-inspiring and pathetic. He also performs Thomas's poetry as compellingly as one imagines the poet himself must have.
The substance of the play is Thomas's struggle with his own pernicious sense of inferiority. Though an acknowledged genius himself, he was obsessively jealous of Shakespeare. ("He wrote it all.") He rails against the mediocrity of "averagists" while simultaneously belittling his own achievement. ("Being good isn't all it's cracked up to be.") Thomas was also an inveterate philanderer, despite having been married since the age of 23. It has been said that the main cause of his demise was the alcoholic co-dependent relationship with his wife Caitlin, ultimately doomed by her resentment at his betrayals in America. Watching him grapple with his self-perceived failings as writer and husband will fascinate anyone interested in the pitfalls of the creative life.
Thomas was also addicted to (and ambivalent about) fame. My favorite story in the play is of an encounter with Charlie Chaplin, whom he revered. He ruefully recalls asking the great comedian for a loan of $2000, which Chaplin politely declined. Later Thomas realizes "The poor bugger needed the money more than I did!" It's no accident that Thomas died in New York, where his celebrity enabled his self-destructive behavior. As he admits, "They loved me in America. They loved me to death."
One-person shows can be fraught with peril; without multiple characters and conflict between them, it's a challenge to create the needed dramatic tension. Likewise, poetry onstage is a difficult proposition; drama is essentially about action, while poetry is meant to evoke a state of being. I am happy to report that in the hands of playwright Pownall and actor Wyn Davies, Do Not Go Gentle succeeds admirably in surmounting these challenges. If you're looking for theater that is a treat for the mind, not an "insult to the brain," this show will fit the bill nicely.
(Do Not Go Gentle runs through January 10, 2010 at Theatre Row's Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $41.25 for performances Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and $51.25 for performances Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets can be reserved by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or online at www.ticketcentral.com. More information at www.do-not-go-gentle.com.)