Brilliant Charlie Chaplin, Despairing Dostoevsky at La Jolla Playhouse

     It is mystifying to think about how one of the nation’s leading theater companies, La Jolla Playhouse, could simultaneously present to its loyal audiences a brilliant musical biography, the most enjoyable and historically significant “Limelight, The story of Charlie Chaplin,” while also serving up in an adjacent theater the vile, meaningless 90 minutes of useless agony, a version of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground.”

     It was only toward the end of “Notes” that patrons starting walking out, a final on-stage rape scene was ultimately too much to bear, but we all should have left in the beginning as it became apparent that the whole production was to consist of a maniac repeatedly proclaiming that his life was completely evil and that he was in perpetual agony.







Contrast this with the uplifting life of Chaplin, who rose from the slums of London to become, on the basis of pure talent and a genetic ability to perform, one of the very greatest Hollywood entertainers and movie stars.  His story, a great crowd pleaser in La Jolla, is likely to end up on Broadway as have many other productions from these uneven creative stages.


     “Notes,” an adaptation of an early novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky, who became one of the two or three greatest Russian novelists, did feature interesting staging in this Yale Repertory-La Jolla co-production, and there is one other positive reflection:  A community that prides itself on serving up the “good life,” as does San Diego, can use an artistic nightmare here and there.  In fact it is the very absence of this kind of humanistic struggle, the turning away from issues of alienation, that makes the local culture less appealing than in other major centers.  So, bring on a little lower Manhattan or some sordid San Francisco, to say nothing of painful 19th Century Russia.  We need a little shaking up in a place that calls itself “America’s Finest City.”


     Chaplin’s thought-provoking life encompasses so much about the 20th Century—urban poverty in the world’s cities, immigration, mama-inspiration, imaginative bravado, the Cold War and American political repression and H o l l y w o o d that it is an absolute natural for telling a big story with its emotional highs and lows.  At the heart of this wonderful story is a show about how to please an audience.


     In telling the life of this natural and consummate entertainer, who built on his vaudeville training to become a star in the earliest silent films and then the “talkies,” the La Playhouse has gone all-out, as this company can do when it is when focused on a good story.  In the current production we have a wonderful orchestra, singers, dancers, stars.  Chaplin, a world-class womanizer, took four wives and then, as he left the stage driven away by the horrible anti-communist blacklist, moved to Switzerland and had eight kids with his last wife. 


     What the audience might best remember, besides the perfect showcasing of Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, is the truth about a life, about mass culture and how the left-wing idealism bit so deeply into almost all its adherents that the challenge of know-nothing attacks by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his fellow demagogues at first seemed irrelevant.  But these attacks were just plain poison on our whole culture.  This production is a truth-teller, retaining the mean-spirited backdrop of poverty and political controversy of the worst kind of 20th Century pain, yet delivered in the form of a wonderful musical giving pleasure and delight to the audience with its terrific script and story and show casing the greatest figure in early Hollywood.







These two plays are at La Playhouse <> through mid-October.

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