By C.B. Adams
The title of the play, “Lewis & Tolkien of Wardrobes and Rings” might imply that attendees will be privy to behind-the-scenes factoids about their favorite “Lord of the Rings” and/or “The Chronicles of Narnia” characters. Alas, no revelations here. The two-man play, presented at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza, offers no new insights into Bilbo’s sexuality or Aslan’s origins as a plush toy.
“Lewis & Tolkien” delights in other, more mature and insightful ways. It’s a buddy play, an even-more-literary “My Dinner with Andre.” Written and performed by David Payne as C. S. Lewis with Gregory Welsch as J. R. R. Tolkien, this play lightly examines the lives, loves, shortcomings and pontifications of these masters of British fantasy as they age into grumpy, weary, ruminative old men.
With a simple set — two easy chairs, a couple of tables, a chess set to convey a cozy back room at their favorite pub — the play puts front and center the true friendship between Tolkien and Lewis — the men, not the legends. And friendship here is defined as a deep, platonic man-love that has both nourished and complicated their lives.
As Tolkien wrote in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Payne’s play sets the two characters down to hash out some of their issues. This approach emphasizes the abilities of the two actors. In this, Payne and Welsch are as comfortable as well-broken-in loafers. Without snazzy scenery or sound design, it’s easy to fall into the word- and idea-filled relationship between them.
Neither Tolkien nor Lewis have any distinctive mannerism or characteristics, compared to, say, Truman Capote, so there is no burden to assess how well either actor portrays his man. So, the success of this performance relies — rightly — on the chemistry and interplay between Payne and Welsch. In this production, this is achieved well.
The writers themselves created fantastical worlds and these actors create a smaller but no less potent and engaging world of ideas and interpersonal challenges and triumphs. Plus, they get to dis The Bard himself, Shakespeare. That’s a tall challenge with pared down theatrical essentials and a stage as intimate as Westport’s. Despite some small timing and dialogue flubs by Payne, and the noticeable tape holding the microphones on the cheeks of both actors, they maintained this world with believability, passion and poignancy.
If this play were a painting, it would be one of those glowing cottages rendered by Thomas Kinkade. It invites you in for some tea and a satisfying, stimulating conversation. Taking an algorithmic approach, ala Pandora or Spotify, if you like these authors’ writings, if you are a regular Masterpiece Theatre-goer, if you are into tweedy woolen jackets with leather elbow patches, or if you have an abiding appreciate the “life of the mind,” then Lewis & Tolkien is for you.
The Playhouse at Westport Plaza presented “Lewis & Tolkien, of Wardrobe and Rings” for six performances June 13-16. For more information, visit www.playhouseatwestport.com