REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Ever since Hal Holbrook first portrayed Mark Twain in 1954, the one-man play-as-tribute has become a staple of the Broadway stage. Subjects have been wide-ranging, from presidents and politicians to actors and authors. In Jack Lemmon Returns, however, the performer is closer to the subject than in any other one-man tribute show: Lemmon’s own son, Chris. Expanding upon material found in his 2008 biography, A Twist of Lemmon: A Tribute to My Father, Chris Lemmon has created a revealing, funny, and poignant stage play in which he doesn’t just portray his famous acting father, who died in 2001 at the age of 76, he “becomes” him. Jack Lemmon Returns plays at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura through March 29, and if you are, as I am, a fan of Jack Lemmon, you will want to see this show. Not only does Chris Lemmon actually believe he makes his father come alive again during this astonishing show, he makes you believe it as well.
Chris Lemmon’s portrayal goes far beyond his father’s familiar mannerisms: the fast-paced speech, the stutter, the laugh, and the quirky gestures. At the outset, Lemmon introduces himself, but quickly and seamlessly transforms himself into his father while playing an on-stage piano. Jack Lemmon was a skilled, self-taught piano player who played strictly by ear. Chris (who was named for Christopher Robin of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories) is a graduate of California Institute of the Arts with degrees in classical piano and composition as well as one in the theatrical arts. Using the piano as a conduit, Chris moves through highlights of his father’s life, all in his voice, from his early years as the son of an Irish-German family growing up during the Depression through his days on early television, and finally, becoming a star in films.
Skillfully written by Hershey Felder, Jack Lemmon Returns reveals Jack Lemmon’s influences as an actor, including such familiar icons as W. C. Fields, Robert Donat, and other actors of the 1930s, but most importantly, the work of French mime Jean-Louis Barrault (1910-1994), from whom Lemmon got his modus operandi as an actor: “make ’em laugh and then break their hearts.” During his formative years, Jack Lemmon studied intently every move Barrault made in films such as L’enfant du Paradis (1945). In probably the most extraordinary scene in the play, Chris Lemmon perfectly mimics Barrault’s gestures while a silent film of the actual Barrault performing the same movements is projected on a screen behind him.
In the early 1950s, Jack Lemmon performed on many pioneering comedy and dramatic programs on early television, all presented live (in the days before videotape). In one of many hilarious remembrances, Chris-as-Jack recalls playing a surgeon in a tense operating room scene, asking his assisting nurse for, first, a scalpel, then a sponge, and finally, a “hypodemic nerdle.” This unexpected and unplanned spoonerism resulted in the actress playing the nurse starting to laugh uncontrollably, followed by the entire cast in the scene, and finally, even the patient on the operating table.
In the show, Chris reflects on many of his father’s acting co-stars and directors in Lemmon’s long and distinguished film career, including Judy Holliday (“the nicest person I ever worked with”), Blake Edwards (“a south-going guy in a north-going world”), Marilyn Monroe (“a good girl who got lost”), and Walter Matthau (“the brother I never had; if he had played golf, I would have married him”). Of Matthau, who co-starred with Lemmon in The Fortune Cookie (for which Matthau won an Oscar), the original 1968 film version of The Odd Couple (in which Matthau played a character named Oscar), and several films after that, Lemmon said that Matthau was “the only guy on the face of the earth who could make me laugh.”
Not only does Chris Lemmon disappear into his father’s persona, he also does uncanny impressions of his father doing uncanny impressions of people he worked with, including director George Cukor, Mister Roberts co-star James Cagney, Some Like It Hot co-star Joe E. Brown, and, of course, Matthau (who Jack affectionately called “Waltz”).
Of Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon said the troubled actress was “a wreck” during the shooting of Some Like It Hot, continually soused on booze and pills so much that director Billy Wilder had to write her lines on a chalkboard in order for her to be able to read them. To play the cross-dressing part of Daphne, for which Lemmon received a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor, Lemmon simply used his mother as a model. (He reveals that the part was first offered to Jerry Lewis, who famously turned it down, saying “drag isn’t funny.”)
The 1960 Academy Award-winning film The Apartment was Lemmon’s breakthrough, in which he finally achieved the goal he had sought by idolizing Barrault – making people laugh and then cry with the same performance. In Save the Tiger (1973), Lemmon’s characterization of Harry Stoner, a disillusioned apparel company executive, was “the part he had to dig deepest for.” It won him his second Oscar, making him the first performer to ever win supporting actor and best actor awards.
Jack Lemmon won his first Oscar for portraying Ensign Frank Pulver in Mister Roberts (1955), a “human tornado” of a role that he knew was so perfect for him that he waited outside the studio stage door, hoping to land an audition. After accepting the Academy Award, he was so caught up in the hoopla, flashing cameras, and adulation, that he forgot all about his wife, who waited for him at the theater until she finally found her way home by herself. It was the beginning of the end for Lemmon’s first marriage, and signaled a key flaw in his character; he often put his career ahead of his family, and for years, would only be a part-time father to Chris. It wasn’t until later in life that Jack and Chris become buddies, playing piano for hours on end, going on fishing trips, and competing on the golf course. (Jack Lemmon’s chief disappointment during his life was his 34 years failing to make the cut at the annual AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament.)
The piano turns out to be the binding factor in Chris Lemmon’s portrayal. Not only was it the activity that Chris loved doing with his father more than anything else, but it became a key framework for the play. Chris originally planned on playing George Gershwin melodies in the show, but when licensing issues spoiled that, he substituted his own composition, Lullaby for a Little Lemmon, which he had written upon the birth of his daughter Sydney. The song, a lilting, wistful waltz, is a recurring motif throughout the show and gives Lemmon’s performance the touch of pathos that makes the whole thing work splendidly.
Jack Lemmon Returns is a masterful tour de force and a distinguished addition to the long canon of one-man-tribute stage shows. To use one of Lemmon’s favorite phrases, it’s “a touch of terrific.”
Jack Lemmon Returns plays at the Rubicon Theatre Company through March 29. For ticket info, dates, and showtimes, visit the VC On Stage Calendar. An interview with Chris Lemmon will appear on VC On Stage later this week.