Christopher Plummer still has ‘A Word or Two’ to say
By Christopher Smith
Christopher Plummer is in the wonderful phase of his career — and at 82 he’s seizing the opportunity.
In February, the six-decade veteran of 100-plus movies and uncounted opening nights on stage, vaulted back to the top of the heap while becoming the oldest actor to win an Oscar, for his compelling turn as an out-of-the-closet-at-life’s-end character in the movie “Beginners.”
His first-time win, preceded and followed by a round of engaging talk show appearances, revealed him as a rediscovered resource (a male counterpoint to Betty White perhaps?). The likelihood of a further 15 minutes of octogenarian fame, based on a few additional movie roles showcasing his classically trained skills, seemed probable.
But that would be the predictable path. And Plummer’s career — ranging from “The Sound of Music” to virtually every male lead in the Shakespearean canon — has been built on versatility, not predictability. So this month found Plummer at the prestigious Stratford Shakespeare Festival premiering a self-penned, autobiographical play some 15 years in the making.
“A Word or Two” is a bravura one-man showcase for a few of his favorite things — principally, Plummer’s love of language and writing. Onstage at the bucolic Canadian theater complex that originally launched him to stardom, he spent 90 nonstop minutes — lights fade to black for a seeming intermission but immediately snap back on, Plummer wryly saying “welcome back!” — weaving a tale of personal experience and reflection stitched together with recited passages from Lewis Carroll, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas and other literary luminaries.
Plummer is dwarfed on stage by a 30-foot helix of books angling up, over and behind him, clearly implying the literary DNA that is the backbone of “A Word or Two.” The quotes he has chosen don’t support specific anecdotes from his life so much as inform brief ruminations that range thematically from mothers to strippers, jazz to cabaret, religion to death.
Plummer’s startling talent at switching personas on a dime — often through mimicry — is also front and center, and even something he makes fun of (on opening night he followed an extended passage delivered in the voice of a wilting Blanche du Bois-esque Southern belle with a verbal aside to the audience: “Why am I talking this way”?)
“They have all become part of me,” a relaxed Plummer said the morning after opening night of “A Word or Two,” discussing the work in the lounge of the Avon Theatre, where he had unveiled it.
“Reading was a preoccupation since I was young … and an early occupation doing radio dramas,” said Plummer, his rich baritone reflecting his decades on stage. “And then my whole life I have been performing the written word so it felt comfortable using these writers and works I love so much in this manner.”
With white eyebrows doing calisthenics across his forehead as he accentuated points, but the famed temper (“Oh, I’ve still got it, all right,” he said cheerily, and non-apologetically) nowhere on display, he was thoughtful, animated and, ultimately, charming.