Val Kilmer as Mark Twain at the Wyly: Our Non-Review Review

"I like criticism, but it must be my way," said Mark Twain. That also goes for the actor Val Kilmer, currently portraying Twain at the Wyly Theatre (through April 22) in a one-man touring production he wrote and directed. To be granted tickets to last night's performance of Citizen Twain, we critics had to agree not to review the show.

So I can't offer criticism, positive or negative, on Kilmer's 90-minute performance (plus another 30 minutes of post-show Q&A with the audience). I can, however, imagine how I might review Citizen Twain if you did it. So here goes.

It was weird when you entered singing Nirvana's "Entertain Us" in a raspy Southern drawl.

If you're going to start the show like that, it should be for a reason. Also you should not have changed the lyrics to "Here we are now, enter-Twain us" for a cheap laugh.

You'd be better if you memorized the script. That would make your show more polished and you wouldn't have to stop several times and cry out, "Line! I'm lost! I'm lost!" in your Mark Twain voice until someone from backstage yelled out a cue.

You need a director. It's difficult to be playwright, director and star of a one-man show. You need someone looking at your performance who is allowed to say "No, don't do it that way" or "You need more energy here" or "Are you off book yet?"

If you play Mark Twain as a drunkard, be consistent. He needs either to get drunker as you swill the fake liquor out of the bottles onstage, or you need to stop swilling and get progressively more sober as the stories grow more serious.

Tell more stories and fewer jokes. You aren't that funny as a stand-up comic pretending to be Mr. Twain. So jokes about Dick Cheney and Betty White and other 21st Century figures either need to be written with Twain-like zing or dropped. If you are pretending that Mark Twain is speaking from the Great Beyond, he should still be as funny as he was 100 years ago. Otherwise, you come off as a Southern-fried George Burns in an ice cream suit.

You need a really good wig. Mark Twain's white mane was thick but carefully coiffed. Your wig looks like Bea Arthur's in a windstorm.

Don't sing "Ol' Man River" from Showboat. That show was written in 1927. Mark Twain died in 1910. And singing it in a Negro dialect right out of Gone with the Wind ... well, that was weird.

Hal Holbrook's done his show for six decades for good reasons. Your show has to go some to best Mark Twain Tonight!, the one-man play Holbrook's been doing for nearly 60 years. (Here he is in a clip from 1967.) Not only does Holbrook have impeccable timing and emotional depth delivering Twain's stories, his script is brilliantly devised from Twain's own writings, mostly the wise, humorous social commentaries.

When you finally kick it into gear in the last 20 minutes, you're really good. Those sections about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, told as Twain, had the audience's rapt attention. If the previous hour of your play were as tight and well-acted as those bits, you'd really have something.

You aren't a movie star, so you'll have to work hard at this. Movie stars, like, say Val Kilmer, attract an audience of fans that forgive weak writing, forgotten lines and other screw-ups because they're just happy to see a star in the flesh. You, as a serious theater actor, will have to have more respect for your craft and try to create an evening of theater that also will appeal to theatergoers. So far you haven't done this. But there's time. Work on it.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner