BRINGING AN ECCENTRIC OLD FRIEND BACK
FOR AN ENCORE
by Ben Brantley
The old man, 90, is dirty, disheveled and let's face it decrepit. He looks alarmingly breakable as he shuffles, stiff-legged, through his dust-clotted apartment. And he would seem to be uttering a perfectly self-evident truth when he says, as he considers the bone-splintering menace of the icy sidewalks outside, ''I am no longer renewable.''
But since the speaker is Quentin Crisp or more to the point, someone impersonating Quentin Crisp that assumption is debatable. The British-born Crisp became a celebrity late in life, as a memoirist, epigrammatist and, after his relocation to New York in the 1970's, an incisive theatrical presence in a series of one-man shows. In them he portrayed the outsize, outspoken and drolly effeminate eccentric known as Quentin Crisp.
Last seen in New York in such a venture in 1998, ''An Evening With Quentin Crisp,'' he died in November of the next year. Now here he is again, in an East Village theater just blocks from where he lived, in what might be called ''Yet Another Evening With Quentin Crisp,'' in which he is reincarnated with exact and loving detail by the actor Bette Bourne. The lesson to be learned here, it would seem, is that if you have a surface style as precise and exaggerated as Crisp's was, you are in fact indefinitely renewable.
The real name of the show that opened last night at the New York Theater Workshop is ''Resident Alien,'' a title taken from Crisp's last published collection of essays. Written by Tim Fountain, this import from the Bush Theater in London is squarely in the tradition of dead-celebrity theater, a genre that has flourished in recent decades.
Such works are best suited to subjects with easily caricatured physical appearances, copiously documented examples of wit and anecdotal eloquence, and an emphatic, highly individual language. Examples include Hal Holbrook's ''Mark Twain Tonight,'' ''Tru'' (with Robert Morse embodying Truman Capote) and most especially ''Full Gallop,'' in which Mary Louise Wilson convincingly turned into the exotic fashion empress Diana Vreeland.
Like ''Full Gallop,'' ''Resident Alien'' is a compilation of wit, wisdom and reminiscence, delivered by an elderly person for whom personal style is a life force. The essential difference is that while Mrs. Vreeland was not a stage performer, Crisp of course was. On the surface at least this lends an unseemly flavor to ''Resident Alien,'' as if Crisp's act had been stolen from him shortly after his death.
This is mercifully not the case. ''Resident Alien,'' directed by Mike Bradwell, was in fact conceived before Crisp died, with his knowledge and consent. Unlike Crisp's own theatrical evenings, ''Alien'' plants the writer and performer in his natural habitat: a cluttered, shabby boardinghouse room on East Third Street, which has been resurrected in slovenly, photorealist detail in Neil Patel's remarkable set.
What finally lifts ''Resident Alien'' beyond the status of a Madame Tussaud exhibit, however, is the participation of Mr. Bourne, best known in New York as the creator of Bloolips, the music hall drag troupe. Mr. Bourne came to know Crisp while performing in New York and visited the older man at home. That familiarity shows in a performance that sweetens clinical observation with beneath-the-skin empathy.
While the play is filled with the eminently quotable observations that Crisp used (and often recycled) onstage and in print, Mr. Bourne avoids the easy role of stand-up aesthete. He is, first and foremost, convincingly old, treating his body as a fragile object that demands vigilant care. And his eyes often betray a haunted quality that belies the bravado of his words.
Despite Crisp's professed delight in solitude, Mr. Bourne has a way of staring at an uncompromisingly silent telephone that breaks the heart. When the phone finally rings, and with an invitation to boot, he seems practically to purr with gratified vanity. His rendering of Crisp's brisk account of a short-lived love affair six decades earlier is a superb study of a style that represses sentiment.
Theatergoers who saw Crisp onstage and even his readers may find much of what is actually said here a shade too familiar: the accounts of being a gay streetwalker in the 1920's, the avowed disdain for the gay liberation movement, the artful contrasting of American and British sensibilities and his perception of politics as theater, ''a medium in which a person can suspend his monstrous ego.''
Delivered with Crisp's exquisitely formal phrasing, in which dryness is everything, such observations retain their bracing, instructive appeal. I kept hearing ''mmm-hmm's'' of agreement among the largely middle-aged, middle-class audience with whom I saw the show.
But as genuine theater, ''Resident Alien'' is most satisfying at its most physical, when words, gestures and environment ricochet off one another. There is one sublime visual moment when Mr. Bourne, with a pained flourish, opens a refrigerator that is utterly empty except for one egg. His eyes gleam with the prospect of the lunch he will make from it as he rasps out seven choice words to live by: ''Who says life is devoid of possibility?''
Written by Tim Fountain, based on the life, writings and musings of Quentin Crisp; directed by Mike Bradwell; sets and costumes by Neil Patel; lighting by Brian MacDevitt; sound by Jerry Yager; production stage manager, Charles Means. Presented by the New York Theater Workshop, in association with the Bush Theater. At 79 East Fourth Street, East Village.
WITH: Bette Bourne (Quentin Crisp) and Nancy Robinette (Miss Winfrey's Guest).