Black and White and Gray: Chaplin Is Variously Obvious and Incoherent, but Beautifully Staged

'The Train Driver' offers a harrowing picture of post-apartheid South Africa

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McClure as Chaplin. (Courtesy Joan Marcus)

It’s perhaps no surprise that Chaplin, a biographical musical about the great silent-film comedian, cannot find its voice.

Not surprising, but a shame. Because this ambitious new musical, polished and expensive, the first major opening of the fall season, looks fantastic, boasts a talented cast and offers a tuneful, lushly melodic score. It just can’t pull itself together for three reels of coherent, comprehensible storytelling.

And—unlike Chaplin’s films—without a voice, this play doesn’t have much of a heart.

Charlie Chaplin’s is a fairly simple tale. He suffered a Dickensian youth—an alcoholic father, an institutionalized mother and a childhood in London workhouses. He was saved by his comic talent, which brought him work in music halls. That led to Hollywood and untold fame and riches and womanizing, which in turn led to egotism and left-wing politics and ultimately FBI-enforced exile in Switzerland. (A lifelong British citizen, Chaplin saw his U.S. visa revoked while on a publicity trip to London in 1952.) Best, there’s a happy coda: He finally returned to Hollywood in 1972, five years before his death, to receive an honorary Academy Award.

And all that is in Chaplin, more or less, but told in an anecdotal, impressionistic style. There are flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, without even the courtesy of titles or costume or lighting shifts to indicate what’s happening when. (My date, a very bright guy who holds degrees from some of this country’s finest academies but only a cursory knowledge of Hollywood history, looked at me quizzically at the final curtain. “You’ll have to explain to me what just happened,” he said.) The script, by Christopher Curtis, a songwriter new to Broadway who also wrote the music and lyrics, and Thomas Meehan, the hugely successful Broadway vet, is both didactic (we get it, that Charlie wants love because he misses his mother) and also vague (from the play, it would seem that Hedda Hopper red-baited Chaplin out of the country because he refused to give her an interview).

What’s most successful, and most striking, about Chaplin is its look. Director Warren Carlyle (who also choreographed) and his design team have, ingeniously, rendered the stage and the cast as an early-Hollywood silent-picture world. Nearly everything is in black, white or shades of gray: the Deco-influenced, movie-scenery sets by Beowulf Boritt, the costumes by Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz, even the makeup by Angelina Avallone, with a ghostly—or vaudevillian—layer of white pancake on all the faces. Ken Billington’s lighting enhances these black-and-white contrasts, and the projections, by Jon Discroll, give even the live action the crackling, flickery feel of an old, hand-cranked film.

Rob McClure is the show’s breakout star, channeling a heartfelt and convincing take on both Chaplin the man and his famous, feisty Little Tramp character. He sings nicely—especially when, finally, late in the second act, he gets his big, emotional, post-exile number, “Where Are All the People?”—and acts well, but he’s at his best with the physical work. As he has discussed in innumerable interviews, Mr. McClure has studied the Tramp’s tics and trademarks, and he’s a pleasure to watch playing Chaplin playing his character.

His leading ladies are equally formidable: Christiane Noll as Chaplin’s beloved, absent mother, Hannah; Jenn Colella as Hopper, his imperious journalistic nemesis; and Erin Mackey as Oona O’Neill, the takes-no-crap ingénue with whom he finally finds lasting love. Michael McCormick also brings a welcome jolt of bombast to his scenes as Mack Sennett, the Hollywood producer who first brought Chaplin to Hollywood.

Ultimately, for all the hard work, talent and investment that went into Chaplin, there are only two truly moving moments. The first is when Chaplin, newly arrived in Hollywood and fearful he’ll fail, suddenly devises his Tramp persona, pulling together bits of his remembered past. The assembly itself is, typically, both confusing and trite—but the instant when a spotlight finds him, just as he finally slips on the bowler, grabs the cane, and bows his legs is breathtaking. So, too, is the play’s final scene, when an old, wealthy, worn and beloved Chaplin turns upstage, shuffles up the red carpet, and disappears into a movie screen, for his trademark Trampy walk into the distance.

But those are triumphs of stagecraft, not of heart.

Athol Fugard is the great anti-apartheid playwright of South Africa, and his newest play, The Train Driver, set more than a decade after the fall of that horrible regime, makes clear that even with full democracy, life for many people in his country is far from good.

Indeed, it is bleak. The Train Driver is a bleak play, on a bleak set, about bleak lives. It debuted in Cape Town two years ago and opened last week at the Signature Center as the third and final production in a season devoted to Mr. Fugard’s work. The playwright directs this two-hander, about a black man, Simon (Leon Addison Brown), who earns a meager living burying unidentified black corpses, and the white train driver, Roelf (Ritchie Coster), who arrives at this graveyard to hunt for the woman who stepped in front of his locomotive one night, her baby strapped to her back, and has since then haunted his dreams.

It is a play of long, lyrical, philosophical monologues, mostly monologues of pain. (Also monologues with language and terminology that can sometimes flummox a non-South African audience.) Simon lives alone in a shack in the graveyard, thinking back on a happier childhood and realizing this is all life has to offer him. Rolf is consumed by the woman he killed, convinced he is somehow to blame for it, even if the authorities say he’s not to blame for it. He is struck—crippled—by the memory of a woman who’d decided it was better for her, and for her infant child, to die than to continue living.

The play’s ending is, for both men, horrible. But Mr. Fugard has made the argument that some lives can be as horrible as death, and that some horrors don’t die even when buried.

editorial@observer.com