Citizen McKay

By Jim Keogh

You’d never heard of Christian McKay. His acting resume is still in its infancy.

That’s what makes McKay’s performance in Me and Orson Welles more than just a nicely wrought turn in a movie. His portrayal of the great Welles is a piece of cinematic serendipity that sends you scrambling to imdb.com to learn what else he’s appeared in (again, not much) and to find the answer to that question nagging you the minute the house lights go up: “Who is this guy?”

Me and Orson Welles begins with a brash high school kid named Richard Samuels (Zac Ephron) who worms his way into a small role in Welles’ groundbreaking 1937 Broadway production of Julius Caesar, which is in rehearsals. The play gives Richard an insider’s view of the messy backstage workings at the Mercury Theatre under the imperious direction of Welles, whose substantial personal flaws — arrogance, self-absorption, predatory womanizing — are countered by his artistic brilliance. And he’d be the first to tell you so.

The film meshes a moderately interesting coming-of-age parable with that wonderful Wellesian performance. McKay, who played Welles in a one-man show called Rosebud, bears a decent physical resemblance to the famous man, including the blocky jawline that morphed into doughiness in later years. But it’s in the voice where McKay really captures his subject, delivering his lines in the same recognizable timber that gave enduring screen life to Charles Foster Kane and sold Paul Masson wine, though not before its time. McKay modulates The Voice as needed, employing it as a bludgeon to shock the audience all the way to the Mercury’s back row, or as a purring come-on to his newest romantic conquest.

Me and Orson Welles is directed by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset) as a love letter to Welles and the scene in which he thrived. This is fun stuff, as you find yourself checking off the list of notables who enter young Richard’s orbit: There’s the suave Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), the put-upon John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), and girl-hungry Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), many decades before he would become familiar to a national audience as the chief medical officer on TV’s St. Elsewhere.

Ephron does a fine job pulling away from his High School Musical roots, and Claire Danes is affecting as the Mercury’s secretary and the object of Richard’s schoolboy crush.

But Christian McKay looms over them all, just as Orson Welles did in his time. It’s tough to outperform a force of nature.

Me and Orson Welles will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, and at 1 and 3:10 p.m. Sunday in the Jefferson Academic Center at Clark University as part of the Cinema 320 film series. cinema320.com

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