Plenty of stars have signature roles. But for Hal Holbrook, the part of Mark Twain is more than a carefully crafted autograph. Here the signature has been engraved as if on some commemorative gold watch. Holbrook has been performing Twain for over half a century and has a repertoire of more than 16 hours of material from which to draw.
For the current edition of "Mark Twain Tonight!," he taps into passages that cause ripples of recognition to run through the audience: Religious fanaticism, the mendacity of politicians, the intractability of the French -- Holbrook's Twain dispenses wit and wisdom on all these topics. At one point, he announces that the 19th century is his age and that he feels a bit out of place in the 20th. But many of his observations have some kick even in the early 21st. Where, exactly, he would fit into our culture is anybody's guess. He'd probably avoid the Sunday morning talking-head programs (all that pompous sermonizing) and he'd probably feel out of sync with the manic irony of "The Daily Show." NPR? Maybe just a pinch too refined.
Holbrook finds space during the evening for a couple of crowd-pleasing set pieces. At the performance I attended, he included "His Grandfather's Old Ram" (the ultimate shaggy dog story) and "Huck's Conscience" (an excerpt from, of course, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"). Through it all, he moves distractedly back and forth from the stage-left podium to the stage-right table, with its smoking paraphernalia and water pitcher. He fiddles with his cigars and performs elaborate business with a handkerchief. The studied deadpan quality he brings is occasionally disturbed by the hint of a suppressed smile, suggesting that the Great Man just can't quite avoid tickling himself now and again.