Calling Keaton a sad clown might be akin to calling French Stewart and Joe Fria—who here portray the silent star at respectively older and younger stages in his life—simply good actors. Keaton was an alcoholic, miserably troubled, agonizingly self-destructive clown, whereas Stewart and Fria are world-class physical comedians and brilliant actors. There are many things about this presentation to recommend and to criticize, but these performers provide the heart of it, both when onstage alone or in those rare moments when the two sides of Keaton are depicted interacting. Whether it be miming each other's movements in a full-length mirror or carping at each other for ruining their mutual life, the effect is captivating.
It would be difficult to care about Keaton's decline without director Jaime Robledo's inventive staging, Andrew Amani's stunt choreography, an imaginative team of multimedia artists, and uniformly excellent performances. Of that inspiringly committed ensemble, Scott Leggett is a standout as Fatty Arbuckle, Pat Towne is a delightfully cartoon-blustery Louis B. Mayer, and Guy Picot appears to be channeling Charlie Chaplin, both his Little Tramp persona and as a soft-spoken, gap-toothed, white-haired older man sharing a dressing room with Keaton for a personal appearance as they good-naturedly analyze their roller-coaster careers.
The intensely theatrical joys of "Stoneface" begin early, with reels of Keaton's films rolling on Joel Daavid's exquisitely old Hollywood set as the audience shuffles in, and continue through one clever scene after another—played as though lifted from silent films themselves. Nearly continuous pratfalls and hilarious choreographed bits keep the play alive despite the downwardly spiraling topic of a wasted existence. If only "Stoneface" didn’t ultimately feel more like a Hollywood scandal–obsessed cable show featuring a string of unrelated tabloid-friendly events depicting the squandered life of a great artist.
Presented by Sacred Fools Theater Company, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., L.A. May 25–Aug. 5. Thu.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (310) 281-8337 or www.sacredfools.org.