Home for the holidays

Larry O'Dwyer's return to Theatre Three in The Miser is saved by a strong supporting cast

Dallas is Larry O'Dwyer's stomping ground, and I am the Lilliputian who scurries amid the underbrush, firing projectile adjectives at his all-terrain-vehicle feet. Well, the dream I had after seeing Theatre Three's manically funny production of The Miser went something like that.

Mr. O'Dwyer is a founding company member of Theatre Three who departed our environs with his sturdy local legend intact only to become an artistic associate at Baltimore Center Stage and begin, presumably, to construct a legend there too. His career has lasted through many critics in town (although I hope to stem the turnover tide), but there is a loyal (if dwindling) Theatre Three subscription base who has attended decades of his performances. A few of them were at the Thursday-night performance that I saw. You could see them, with silver hair and seasoned faces, rising to their feet in a scattered wave across the audience to give O'Dwyer a standing ovation.

However, having seen the undeniably gifted Mr. O'Dwyer give three comic performances now, I am of the opinion that those ovations have sometimes drowned out the sound of his best actorly instincts. I first witnessed Mr. O'Dwyer several years ago in a superb Theatre Three production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins. He was Samuel Byck, the would-be Nixon killer in a Santa Claus suit. The already gnomish Mr. O'Dwyer in that red and white holiday getup, his gruff voice explosive and wavering between dithery and dangerous lunacy, was indeed a frightening comic creation--until he broke character to chide a first-row audience member who appeared to be asleep. He dropped Samuel Byck twice more during his monologue for muggy asides to ticketbuyers, all the more frustrating because he'd entranced me. The next time I saw Mr. O'Dwyer on the Theatre Three stage was in a one-man show in which he performed Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Granted, I was already irritated with him for having unplugged his previous performance. But he didn't just go to town with the solo performance, he crashed his helicopter in the town square and killed all those Dickensian roles in the ensuing inferno of his own ego. He was, simply, out of control, bellowing and hopping and winking. But the audience that night--again, my recollection is of many veteran T3 ticketbuyers--loved it. To these less nostalgic eyes, O'Dwyer looked a little grotesque, bathed in the golden light of hometown adoration.

So while many theatergoers in Dallas greeted this holiday season with eagerness because O'Dwyer was returning after three seasons to star in director Jac Alder's translation of Moliere's The Miser, I was apprehensive. Thankfully, Mr. O'Dwyer concentrated his talents on the master French satirist's rabid skinflint and not on Mr. O'Dwyer, The Whimsical Dallas Theater Institution...for the most part. He did address the audience several times, but I saw other actors do that too, so this was presumably part of director Alder's vision. But he also sat in one audience member's lap. And he fake-pawed a woman. I don't think these flourishes were necessarily intended, but then I guess the whole point of an O'Dwyer performance is to fire a director's best intentions full of buckshot when Larry takes the stage.

Luckily, O'Dwyer the actor only manages to gets off a few shots in The Miser, because Harpagon, his character, comes in with barrels blazing. When not goofing off, Larry O'Dwyer is a weaselly wonder as the stingiest father in the world, a well-to-do late-19th-century French Quarter resident with a son named Clay (Jeff Herbst) and a daughter named Elise (Ambre Low) whose romantic aspirations don't jibe with Harpagon's vision of their futures.

Director Jac Alder has transplanted this three-way conflict from Moliere's 17th-century France to late-19th-century New Orleans and outfitted his characters with not too outlandish Dixie drawls, expressing sentiments like Harpagon is "standing in tall cotton" instead of simply saying he's richer than devil's-food chocolate. Elise loves Val (Ashley Wood), a steward to Harpagon who's entered the family estate expressly to woo her, while Clay loves Maryanna (Tish Simmons), a young woman whom Harpagon is pursuing for strictly penny-pinching reasons. Into this calamitous triangle steps Frosine (Cecilia Flores), a self-described matchmaker who is adept at bringing people together and keeping them apart with her ingratiating magnolia lilt. Throw in servants (Randle Michael and Scott Milligan) who do as much complaining (and, in one case, spinning outright treachery) as serving, and you have a household teeming with desires thwarted, unrequited, and uncontrollable.

Maybe Larry O'Dwyer has been kept (relatively) in line by the knowledge that he is surrounded every night by some marvelous supporting players. Cecilia Flores glides, bats her eyes, and clasps her hands with a ladylike-ness that's smoother and more lethal than cyanide-laced buttermilk: She is, to put it plainly, perfect in this show. Scott Milligan, as the cook and the coachman (it depends on which hat he's wearing at the time), earned some of the evening's biggest laughs with his chronically fed-up take on the shenanigans around him. Watch him react to Harpagon's suggestions for a penurious banquet--clear broth and a squirrel--and laugh till you're teary-eyed. Tish Simmons as Maryanna, she of upturned nose and deceptively credulous eyes, has one of the smaller roles, but is irresistible to behold as she struggles inside the designs that Harpagon has placed on her. Ashley Wood has the confidence and the marquee mug to play endless valiant paramours, although I sensed him searching for an appropriate level of frazzle during a couple of his confrontations with Harpagon; he might reconsider how to smoothly transition into flustery intimidation when dealing with this tyrannical elder, or if visible intimidation is needed at all.

And then there's Larry O'Dwyer, who some might say has taken a beating on his first appearance in these pages. I believe he is all the delicious contradictions that his audiences love him for--intense yet fluid, uniquely sinister and childlike at the same time, seemingly having arrived here from some other planet but empathetic to human absurdity--because I saw all those qualities in his role as Harpagon. I also saw an actor who seems to get bored easily onstage. What I fear is that Mr. O'Dwyer will be swinging from ceiling beam to ceiling beam by the close of The Miser. Granted, one man's profligacy is another's puckishness, but those of us who don't remember the decades of O'Dwyer's work with Jac Alder and Norma Young wonder: Are such outbursts the most noble way for a great actor to enter his winter years? A recent Sunday profile by Dallas Morning News' Lawson Taitte indicates that at least one director outside of Dallas has had to ask Larry to rein it in. Maybe that kind of tough love from the town that usually falls at Larry's feet is what Mr. O'Dwyer needs every once in a while, to make sure he doesn't betray his own talents.

The Miser runs through January 10. Call (214) 871-3300.

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