What takes place behind closed doors when two major historical figures meet? Motivating plays like Michael Frayn’s celebrated Copenhagen (the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg) as well as recent films such as Saving Mr. Banks (Walt Disney and P. L. Travers), the desire to be “in the room where it happens” (to quote Hamilton, another work which dramatizes private interactions of public historical figures) is a big draw for authors and audiences alike. The extended collaboration of two legends, German playwright and director Bertolt Brecht and British film star Charles Laughton, on the English translation of Brecht’s Life of Galileo should make for a fiery addition to the genre. Regrettably, in Orbits, a new play by Wally Sewell bringing these two giants of the arts together, there is rarely such a spark.
Sewell’s Brecht (Peter Saracen) and Laughton (Edmund Dehn) tend to speak in chunks of exposition that unfortunately reveal more about biography than character. “Here we are adapting and translating your play,” Laughton informs Brecht, before also reminding him, “You’re the most important writer in the twentieth century” (Brecht later delivers a rudimentary lecture on his theatre techniques while Laughton recites most of his own filmography.) Sewell treats Laughton’s conflicted sexuality heavy-handedly and without much nuance, first in an improvised Galileo scene in which Brecht-as-the-Inquisitor outs Laughton-as-Galileo as gay, and then through Laughton’s uncomfortably lecherous references to a young actor.
Under the direction of Anthony Shrubsall, Saracen and Dehn show themselves to be capable actors facing a lethargic text. Dehn’s portrayal of Laughton’s waning veneration for Brecht feels particularly convincing. But the real Brecht once said that his collaboration with Laughton was “a piece of fun that lasted two years.” Maybe it’s because Sewell sets much of the play in the wake of the atomic bomb (a choice which has relevance for the play they’re adapting), but these two artists seem pretty miserable throughout.
The possibilities of what this story might have been in different hands begin to emerge only in the final scene in which Laughton dons an American accent to prep Brecht, who has been blacklisted as a potential communist, for his upcoming hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Only here do the high stakes of the pair’s private performances and improvisations come into focus.
As it happens, the transcript of Brecht’s actual HUAC testimony is easily available. Even under that tremendous pressure, he was wittier and wiser than Orbits ever allows him to be. Life, it turns out, sometimes makes for better theatre than fiction.
Orbits is playing at the Drayton Arms Theatre until March 11.