Across from the Music Box Theatre on 45th street off of Broadway, Angela Lansbury is starring in a production of the Gore Vidal play The Best Man. At 86, Lansbury is six years older than William Shatner and, like the Shat, boasts an impressive career spanning various media and interests. Can you then imagine Angela Lansbury performing a one-woman show called “Lansbury’s Lane” in which she takes audience members through anecdotal stories about her life, punctuated by video clips or recorded musical numbers? Perhaps she’d close the whole thing out with the Beauty and the Beast song before doing a little soft-shoe to the Murder She Wrote theme. But Angela would never do such a thing. And it’s hard to imagine any other actor getting away with a clip-show masquerading as a one-man show for the theatre.
But like Jim Kirk reprogramming the Kobayashi Maru, William Shatner likes to change the definitions of everything from theatre to good taste, with mixed results. And his new one man show is no exception.
Doing a sustained 90-minute monologue is no easy feat for anyone, so for a man of 80 to be doing it with such breathless, effortless panache well… you’ve really got to hand it to the guy. New York City is used to this kind of thing, however. We’ve got Woody Allen randomly playing clarinet in jazz clubs uptown and, as I mentioned, Angela Lansbury is acting her face off just across the street from Shatner (with James Earl Jones, who is 79!) At least in terms of the relative age of actors, we live in the future. 80-something is no longer old.
Strutting out on stage in a sharp vest, great jacket, and questionable blue jeans, one has to admit that William Shatner looks pretty good for 80. His specific over-exaggerated notion of himself only seems to increase in affect as he advances in years. In the documentary on Harlan Ellison, “Dreams With Sharp Teeth,” Neil Gaiman muses that Harlan Ellison has been working on a piece of performance art for his entire life called “Harlan Ellison.” The same can likely be said of William Shatner; it’s as though he gets better and better at doing his shtick as the years go on, and the closer he gets to the end, the more he will have perfected his whole William Shatner thing.
This would sound like an insult to another actor, but for Shatner, I bet he’d hear it as a compliment. A solid third of Shatner’s World deals with death; the death Shatner’s father, the death of a beloved horse, his own fear and frustrations with mortality, and on into overly-simplified and funny questions about the afterlife itself. James Kirk may have never faced death before the events of The Wrath of Khan, but Shatner certainly has. He even kicks off his one man show with reference to several great comedians of the past, specifically making light of the famous instance of Tommy Cooper dying on stage while performing physical comedy. I imagine the audience immediately worrying that Shatner might do the same thing, but he counters with, “I don’t think it will happen for me tonight.”
But the anecdotes about death and opinions about how to deal with it aren’t themes Shatner goes too deep with. Or rather, he goes about as deep as he can without cracking the current incarnation of what William Shatner is. What’s that? Well, towards the very end of the 90-minute set, he talks about his tongue-in-cheek collaboration with Ben Folds on the album Has Been. This persona, mixed with Denny Crane, seems to be exactly who he is. An older guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously, who claims to “make an ass of himself all the time.” Many of us (Star Trek fans chiefly) love him for making an ass out of himself, and also for his candor about it. But does that make it good? Does that make it worthy of a one-man show on Broadway?
Sadly, not really. And mostly because true theatre requires a little more nuanced vulnerability than this. At one point Shatner calls death, “the final frontier” even though a smarter, Trek-related reference would be “the undiscovered country” a quote that actually IS about death. Further, by starting the show out with explanations of the workings of comedy and which famous comedians influenced him, someone unfamiliar with Shatner would have no idea what kind of actor he even was. Is he a comedian? When Shatner played the famous “Risk is our business!” scene from “Return to Tomorrow” in Star Trek, the audience laughed. Is that scene funny? Or is Shatner just a joke?
Shatner is kind of a joke and knows it. And so he plays his quasi-memoir, quasi-clip show, one man theatre experience mostly for laughs. Which is too bad. He borrows a lot of material in both monologue form and clip form from his recent documentary The Captains. This is problematic because the advantage of theatre is the ability to connect with one’s audience on a direct, different and more organic way than film or TV. Shatner knows this, and his various anecdotes about his work in the theatre are among some of the most charming aspects of the show. He even talks about his days in live television, and a particularly disastrous performance with Lon Cheney.
Shatner points out that the cameras back in the days of live TV were like live animals, and that they frightened the actors. But now, watching him on stage, one would think William Shanter is always imagining that camera. Despite a few ums and ahs, nothing in Shatner’s World feels natural. It’s canned and a bit over-rehearsed. It’s also a cobbling together of various bits and shticks Shatner has been accumulating throughout the years. This may be the first time he’s brought his autobiographical act to Broadway, but William Shatner has been telling stories about his life on stage for at least 30 years at Star Trek conventions.
Here, he tells fewer stories about Star Trek, and more stories about his personal life, but never do we get the feeling of who he really is. The giant planet-shaped video screen looms behind him, threatening to play yet-another video clip that anyone can just as easily watch on YouTube. Shatner ends the performance with the Brad Paisley-penned song “I’m Real”; a kind of plea to help his fans understand that he’s just a guy, and not a hero. But this, too, feels like a pastiche of an homage of a concept.
What is it exactly like in Shatner’s World? The tagline of the show is “we just live in it,” which might be true. But a more accurate tag might be: “It’s Shatner’s World and Only Shatner Lives in It.” And the thing is, to discover what it’s really like in Shatner’s real world without some of the standard winks and nudges might be interesting. Though it might take a straight up mind-meld for that to happen.
But for now, nobody does the William Shatner show quite like William Shatner.
Shatner’s World is directed by Scott Faris and showing at The Music Box Theatre in Manhattan through Feburary 24th and begins a national tour March 10th. Tickets here.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.