4 of 5 stars
Chicago’s Royal George Theatre has recently premiered Jack Lemmon Returns, a new play that pays a loving tribute to famed screen actor Jack Lemmon. Jack’s look-alike adult son, Chris Lemmon, plays the lead role. The show is written and directed by Hershey Felder, the creative master of one-person biographies who wrote and performed the remarkable George Gershwin Alone and Monsieur Chopin nearly a decade ago. Chris Lemmon begins this biographical monologue in character as his father Jack with several aside comments directed to an off-stage son while playing the tune “Our Love is Here to Stay.” Behind him on the stage are four hanging panels that project images of Jack, his famed co-stars and other family members throughout the course of the 90-minute play, which also contains frequent piano interludes.
The 59-year-old Chris channels his late father’s mannerisms, stammering speech cadences, laughs and grins with uncanny accuracy. Anyone old enough to remember his dad’s early films (Jack appeared in films from the 1950s until his death in 2001) will be astonished. Much of the first part of the play tells the story of Jack’s origin, beginning with his birth in the elevator of a Massachusetts hospital in 1925 and chronicling his early experiences of being labeled “funny” by others. Jack graduated from Harvard in 1947 with a major in War Services Sciences. He became an ensign in the Navy before beginning his stage and television career in the 1950s, a profession his father never really approved of.
Once Jack gets to Hollywood, he describes meeting a variety of famed directors from the 1950s: George Cukor, his first director, is described as a man with an under-bite lisp. “Give me less!” he frequently would yell; John Ford, who directed Mr. Roberts, is made to out to be a grubby old stage grip, spitting in his hand to seal the casting deals on his films; and the famed Billy Wilder who — according to Jack — held up a chalkboard with dialogue for Marilyn Monroe because she kept flubbing her takes. Along with the many tales of parties, golf and playing the piano, Chris provides imitations of some of the most notable stars of yesteryear like James Cagney, W.C. Fields, Mae West and Gregory Peck. Chris also joyously offers up significant dialogue cuttings from his dad’s classics like Mr. Roberts, The Apartment, The Odd Couple and Missing. Chris highlights the elder Lemmon’s desire to be a good actor, drawing from the work of French actor and mime, Jean-Louis Barrault, star of the 1945 film Children of Paradise. Jack took most pride in expanding his abilities when he was challenged to be serious in films like Wilder’s The Apartment and Blake Edwards’ Days of Wine and Roses.
Jack’s passionate desire to move audiences with sadness as well as humor prevented him from spending time with his family. He admits to not being around enough for his son, who he affectionately called “Hot-shot,” and his first wife Cynthia. Jack still tried to make time for his son, teaching Chris his love of music, fishing and playing golf at Pebble Beach. To Jack, each role was like a kid: you nurtured and watched it grow. The final half of the play is dedicated to Jack’s pal Walter Matthau, the man who was like the brother he never had. The pair met on Billy Wilder’s 1966 The Fortune Cookie and became instant friends, making ten films during their lives, until Matthau’s fatal heart attack in 2000.
Funny, sentimental and fondly touching, the entertaining Jack Lemmon Returns continues on an open run at Chicago’s Royal George Theatre at 1641 N. Halsted St. For ticket information contact the theatre box office at 312 988-9000 or online at www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com.