Oona O'Neill Chaplin is certainly one of the more interesting characters in 20th century American history. The estranged daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill, she was a minor debutante and celebrity in her own right even before she became Charlie Chaplin's fourth wife. Devoted to Chaplin, she bore him eight children and still had time to become involved in the various controversies that swirled around her husband in the later years of his life. So first step for Michael Stock's new play at the Piven Theater Workshop was a sure one -- he found a good subject.
But Lady Chaplin & Her Tramp: The Life and Art of Charlie Chaplin stumbles on its journey from idea to execution. It's as ponderous and unfocused as its partitioned title. With large personalities as raw material, Stock can't decide what or whom the play is about, and so it nearly collapses under its own over-expansive vision.
Lady Chaplin is framed by a metatheatrical conceit. The play opens with Chaplin's funeral, after which Oona asks ghosts from his life to appear and to help preserve his memory. And so they do, although the Chaplin of the play is hardly a man to remember fondly.
While Stock touches on several aspects of Chaplin's life -- his "serious" artistic aspirations, his embrace of Communism -- the story focuses primarily on Chaplin's obsession with young girls, Oona included (they met when she was 16 and Chaplin was 54). In fact, a large chunk of the evening is given over to the theory (posited in Joyce Milton's biography, Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin) that Chaplin's onscreen and offscreen relationship with Lita Grey (wife number two) was Vladimir Nabokov's inspiration for Lolita.
Stock has some knack for the snap and crackle of American idioms, and the best moments of Lady Chaplin are the simplest: when Chaplin and writer James Agee talk about their art, or when Charlie and Ed Sullivan have at it over Chaplin's politics. But Stock also saddles his actors with great stretches of high-handed prose, primarily because he wants to tackle all the "big questions" of the 20th century in the space of one life story. When an unwelcome epilogue introduces another big idea -- that the figures in the play mirror the characters of Long Day's Journey Into Night -- you're simply too exhausted to fully take it in.
The Piven ensemble, directed by Jennifer Green, does manage to create some spark from the story and characters. David Dietrich Gray has a lot of fun as Sullivan, as does Paul Dunckel as brilliantly troubled good ol' boy Agee. Jonathan Pereira captures Chaplin's charm and obsessive drive, although Stock's overwritten rages seem as tiring to the actor as they are to the audience. As Oona, Jenni Fontana is elegant if a bit chilly, which doesn't serve Stock's stagy monologues very well.
Lady Chaplin & Her Tramp: The Life and Art of Charlie Chaplin runs May 20-June 25 at the Piven Theatre, 927 Noyes St., Evanston, Ill. Tickets (312) 335-1650. Website: www.piventheatre.org.