By Stanford Friedman
To fully appreciate the classically romantic yet quite ridiculous and all together strange interlude that is Paul Swan is Dead and Gone, you have to wrap your mind around the lives of two different men. The first is the real-life Paul Swan, an artist, dancer, actor and general bon vivant who lived from 1883 to 1972. He appeared in both Cecil B. De Mille’s original Ten Commandments in 1923, and an Andy Warhol film shot in 1965. His sculptures were displayed in Paris, France and Lincoln, Nebraska. Well into his 70’s, he performed dance recitals in the studio apartment he rented within Carnegie Hall.
The second man to consider is Tony Torn, the actor portraying Swan, who also happens to be the son of 88-year-old Rip Torn and Geraldine Page, who died in 1987. You can find hints of both of those fine actors, not only in Torn’s facial features, but in his funny, warm and fearless performance. If his Swan’s pudginess is played for laughs, when the actual Swan’s physique remained that of a dancer, he nonetheless exudes the man’s wanderlust, and just plain lust, as well as his passion for Egypt and Greece, all amid mood swings that jump from jokey to morose. Across a quick 75 minutes, this performance piece proves to be not only sexually fluid, but also camp-tolerant and mortality-curious.
Every family has its share of unusual relatives, but playwright Claire Kiechel struck gold with Swan, who is her great grand-uncle. Fortunately, she has no interest in creating a straightforward biography. Combining, music, poetry, dance, fact, fiction and the occasional dose of brilliant absurdism (“We choose our parents before we are ever born.”), Kiechel has created a twisted version of one of Swan’s weekly “soirees,” with the audience as its guests in an evening filled with ghosts. You see, Swan is tardy to his own party, and so it is left to his pianist, Bellamy (Robert M. Johanson), to keep the crowd entertained. He reflects on his superiority over Swan’s previous piano player, whose name was Bollany. But as the night progresses, his own identity blurs. He is killed by Bollany or, perhaps, simultaneously transforms into him because, as the title suggests, dead and gone go hand in hand.
It seems that Swan is not only late to the party, he’s late of this earth. When he finally arrives he does so packed inside a sarcophagus, and emerges wearing a toga, adorned in the lipstick and mascara of, say, Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, had Liz been in her fifties when she played the part. Swan regales the audience with tales of lost love and days gone by, often in a heightened and made-up romance language. He was once known as “The Most Beautiful Man in The World,” but that title followed him “like an epitaph, for what does one do after one’s Beauty has been Vanquishéd?”
In addition to the Bellamy/Bollomy visitations, Swan also welcomes two women whom he vaguely recalls are his daughters, Flora (Helen Cespedes) and Paula (Alexis Scott). Both actors amuse throughout with satirically flourished poetry and dance routines. And Johanson charms while showing off a fine singing voice, especially in a lamentful tune inspired by Byron’s Prometheus, entitled, “But I Could Have Been Divine.”
All of this transpires in a small and worn out parlor room on the second floor of a Chelsea townhouse. It seats just 30 and comes with its own set of spirits, as it was once the actual home of Torn’s parents. Thus, its name is as witty as the production it currently hosts: Torn Page.
Paul Swan is Dead and Gone – By Claire Kiechel; directed by Steve Cosson.
WITH: Tony Torn (Paul Swan), Robert M. Johanson (Bellamy), Helen Cespedes (Flora), and Alexis Scott (Paula).
Choreographed by Dan Safer. Andromache Chalfant (sets), An-Lin Dauber (costumes), Lucrecia Briceño (lights), and Avi Amon (sound). The Civilians at Torn Page, 435 West 22nd St., 866-811-4111, http://thecivilians.org. Through May 19. Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission