Citizen Twain

 

By Walter Kirn

 

In Citizen Twain, Val Kilmer presents the legend as we’ve never encountered him, with all his glorious contradictions intact, all his strengths and weaknesses in play. Poised on the shadowy border of life and death and in a realm outside of time, Twain is part stand-up comic and part philosopher, an immortal intelligence in a mortal body, both wildly hilarious and deeply somber. With eternity on his mind and whiskey and cigar smoke on his breath, Twain threatens to upstage God himself as he ponders existence’s great issues, from man’s capacity for cruelty to the idiocy of politicians. Twain’s reach as a thinker and conversationalist is shown to be virtually boundless in Kilmer’s play, ranging from matters of science and technology to questions of morality and myth, and proving Twain correct in his assertion that he was not “an American” at all—  he was “the American.” Period.

The words of the play are mostly Twain’s, incisive, elegant, and memorable, but the performance is vintage Kilmer, uncompromising, risky, and intense, a voyage to the center of the soul. He delves beneath the surface of Twain’s persona in ways that less daring performers would shy away from. Kilmer’s Twain is so human that it’s painful, a creature of vanity, regret, and longing whose outer swagger masks a troubled conscience and whose still-unmatched celebrity disguises a wounded, stricken spirit. Among those Twain hurt with his scathing, bitter wit was the 19th-Century religious author, Mary Baker Eddy, whom he attempts to make peace with, acknowledging Eddy as an equal in the grand pageant of our national history. “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” Will Eddy forgive him? Can Twain forgive himself?

Citizen Twain is a three-dimensional spectacle, alive with laughter, music, and reflection. It takes us into a mind as vast and vivid as any our culture has ever produced. The result is a dream-like river of words and images that Twain and Kilmer join forces to help us navigate, carrying us far from home and back again and crossing the boundaries dividing past and present. As Kilmer’s play unforgettably reminds us, Mark Twain was a citizen not just of America, but of the universe. He lives on in our heads. He never left the stage.