In his heyday, Roscoe Arbuckle was the highest-paid performer of the silent movie era; his salary exceeded that of Charlie Chaplin. But he was referred to as "Fatty," and a false accusation of rape against this gentle, comedic behemoth destroyed his career and, to a sad degree, his acting legacy. Playwright Kathrine Bates concentrates on the relationship between Arbuckle (Wayne Thomas Yorke) and Buster Keaton (Albie Selznick)—with whom he had previously worked—and that friendship is portrayed in a sweet yet not maudlin manner. The playwright has done her homework, detailing Arbuckle's life before, during, and after the fateful 1921 party in San Francisco when struggling actor Virginia Rappé (Nicola Seixas) died from peritonitis after one too many abortions, and a vicious cohort, Maude Delmont (Jackie Maruschak), became hell-bent on blaming Arbuckle.
Bates makes misjudgments in her writing. She concentrates too much on the trial in the second act and includes far too many mundane intrusions from the Keaton character as narrator. Selznick has a delightful physical ability, and Yorke anchors the work and captures quite effectively the kindness and propriety of Arbuckle. Although the dialogue too often repeats Arbuckle's inability to understand how his life has turned so suddenly tragic, Yorke is always "in the moment," and his charm as an actor makes the character's degradation more involving than the words he speaks.
Gordon Thomson, as an ethically challenged San Francisco D.A. who learns of a questionable prosecution but goes forward to protect his own future, does very creditable work here, too, but the rest of the cast is not uniformly up to the task. Director Flora Plumb spends too much time trying to re-create silent movie shtick without the aid of lighting and allows an extended scene in which Seixas screams, which is nearly unendurable. Elizabeth Huffman's costuming is sumptuous and a pleasure to behold. As for poor Fatty, this plump, tragic, funny man deserved a much better fate, in history and on the boards.
"The Roar of the Crowd," presented by Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills. Thu.-Sat. 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm. on Feb. 6-13 & Mar. 13 only. Also Sat. 2 pm on Feb. 19-26 & Mar. 5 only. Feb. 5-Mar. 13. $18-20. (310) 354-0535.