Review by Kathleen Campion
In August of 1969 the Manson “family” or gang — fueled by drugs and motivated by no-one-knows — murdered actress Sharon Tate and four others at Tate’s Benedict Canyon home. News coverage was sensational, since the “family” slathered cryptic messages on the walls in the victims’ blood. This grim tale of excess came on the heels of the profound upheavals of the late 1960s: the summer of love (’67) was too soon distilled into cults and causes; the Vietnam war was escalating — violent anti-war protests rocked the nation’s campuses — and the 1968 assassinations of both RFK and MLK ginned up already simmering tensions.
Charlie and Sharon is billed as a “a fantastical tragical comical haunting,” in which Charlie Manson is forced to confront the murdered Sharon Tate.
As I was leaving for the theater, I got into the elevator in my building, and met my neighbor—a theater director of some regard — who was on his way to the basement to do some laundry. When I told him I was headed to see a play about Charlie Manson and Sharon Tate, his cryptic look was somewhere between “Why?” and “You’re kidding!” I’m clearing the rest of my reviewing schedule with him.
Charlie and Sharon is ninety minutes of unrelenting drivel. (Oddly, no one takes a writing credit here. Nancy Schreiber takes a “hair” credit. Lisa Reynolds is game to own the lighting design. But the writing? There is a “created by and featuring” credit.)
This is not to say that the performances are poor; they are not. Jen Danby (Sharon) and Daniel Delano (Charlie) work hard. For one thing, this evening is ninety minutes of incessant talk broken only by a few screaming-stomping-pounding moments from Charlie.
Danby and Delano sometimes surprise — and they certainly connect. He’s convincingly crazy; she’s every inch the self-involved, working actress. Their conversations often feel spontaneous. That said, those conversations also feel as if they take place in the quasi-clinical settings of the 1970s: all trust exercises and sensitivity sessions. There are laugh lines — even laugh-out-loud lines — though much of what’s funny may well be unintentional.
One big slice of what’s wrong here is that these are really difficult people to care about. There is nothing in Manson to be redeemed and there is little in Tate to connect with— beyond sympathy for a life cut short. There is no point here. We don’t get anywhere.
The director is the accomplished Austin Pendleton. It would be difficult to fault the direction. Pendleton gets the most out of two motivated actors in a modest black box, with two chairs and a table. It is raw theater, in a raw space. Lights and sound are run off an iPad. There are 25 seats in the Bridge Theater@Shetler Studios. It is little more than a rehearsal space. Pendleton occupied one front-row, stage-left seat. Six other seats were occupied on opening night.
I cannot recommend the production except on one very specific level: If you have never seen theater entirely stripped down to its basics — where only the spoken word and the two earnest people on the stage have consequence — if you would be curious to see what it’s like at the beginning — at the root — it might be illustrative to buy a ticket.
Charlie and Sharon – created by and featuring Jen Danby and Daniel Delano; directed by Austin Pendleton.
WITH: Jen Danby (Sharon) and Daniel Delano (Charlie).
Lighting design by Lisa Raymond; hair by Nancy Schreiber; produced by Mississippi Mud Productions and This American Blonde Actress at the Bridge Theater@Shetler Studios, 244 West 54th St., Manhattan, through June 19th. Running time:1hour 30 minutes with no intermission.