Actor finds Twain timeless

Show: Hal Holbrook's long-running one-man performance continually changes, but he says the author's words remain relevant.

November 20, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

All Hal Holbrook wanted to do was eat.

But what started out almost 50 years ago as a way to ensure a steady paycheck has evolved into one of the country's longest-running theatrical performances. Tonight, Holbrook brings his one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! to Baltimore's Meyerhoff Hall.

Those who have seen Holbrook's performance before doubtless will notice some changes. The actor continually adds to and subtracts from his performance, bringing in fresh pieces of dialogue and aiming Twain's potent wit at new targets.

"Twain always seems contemporary," Holbrook says by phone from his father-in-law's Kentucky home. That perception not only demonstrates Twain's timelessness, but also the relatively unchanging nature of human experience.

Audiences don't always believe it, Holbrook notes, but he always uses Twain's exact words, allowing for minor changes of perhaps a word or two. And mostly, that's done to make what originally was written on paper sound better coming from the stage.

"People really don't change," he says. "They're still concerned with the same things they were concerned with 125 years ago."

A Cleveland native who was raised in New England and now calls California home, Holbrook was the archetypal struggling actor in 1954 when he and his first wife were appearing in a theatrical revue. The show included a Twain monologue, which the then-29-year-old actor performed. The part struck a chord with both actor and audience, and that year, at Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania, a one-man show was born.

Since then, Mark Twain has kept a lot of food on the Holbrook table. Even while gaining his first national exposure on the TV soap opera The Brighter Day in the '50s, Holbrook continued refining his characterization at a Greenwich Village nightclub. In 1959, after a performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, he opened off-Broadway, where the show ran for 22 weeks before hitting the road. He brought it back to New York in 1966, won a Tony and a Drama Critic's Circle Award, and eventually turned Mark Twain Tonight! into an Emmy-nominated television special.

Holbrook estimates he has performed as Twain at least 10 times a year since 1954. Today, at age 76 and with challenging parts few and far between, playing the American author, wit and social critic keeps his acting muscles from atrophying.

The actor believes his shows have taken on new meaning since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which he thinks may have shaken Americans out of a malaise we had unwittingly settled into. Twain's commentary on America and Americans may often sound cynical, but they are infused with an undercurrent of optimism and hope that plays well with audiences.

Holbrook says his four performances since the attacks have been among his best and most well-received. "I grade each performance after it's over," he says. And while he likes to be tough in his self-appraisal, even he admits to being on a roll of late.

Mark Twain Tonight!

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Cathedral and Preston streets

When: 7:30 tonight

Tickets: $34-$58

Call: 410-783-8000, or visit

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