Liz, at Last!
In ‘Cleo,’ making its world premiere at the Alley after a Harvey delay, Austin writer Lawrence Wright revisits Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s torrid affair — on the set of the biggest movie bomb ever. By Edward Nawotka
They say the show must go on. But, even the most dogged of showbiz clichés don’t apply when the theater is under water. Such was the case back in the fall at the Alley, where the decision was made to postpone the company’s premiere of Austin playwright Lawrence Wright’s Cleo due to damage theater sustained in Harvey. As CityBook reported in the September 2017 issue, which went to press about two weeks before the hurricane hit, Cleo tells the story of Elizabeth Taylor and then nearly unknown actor Richard Burton’s torrid, very public affair during the filming of the disastrous movie Cleopatra in Rome.
The play, rescheduled, is now set to open April 6 and run through the end of the month. Lisa Birnbaum plays Taylor opposite Richard Short’s Burton. Noted actor-director Bob Balaban (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) directs.
“She was the most famous woman in the world,” Wright told CityBook last year, in describing Taylor. “And when they started their affair, it was the biggest sex scandal the world had ever seen. The year was 1963, and their affair marked the beginning of the age of celebrity. Their relationship introduced us the word paparazzi, and their example of total libidinous freedom in the spotlight gave a spur to the sexual liberation of the 1960s.”
Wright, who lives in Austin, is a much-lauded, multi-talented author. A staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2006 book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, and his most recent work, Going Clear, a bestselling investigation of the religion of Scientology, was a bestseller and turned into an Emmy-winning documentary by HBO. He’s also no stranger to the theater, having performed in his own one-man show My Trip to Al-Qaeda in New York.
“I have been nursing the script for Cleo for 17 years,” said Wright, though the seed was sewn when the author was a teenager. “When the news broke of the affair, I was just 13 years old. And to a kid raised in a puritanical home in Dallas, it was unbelievably thrilling stuff to realize that the biggest movie stars in the world had sex! Before that, it was as if they never had sex — in movies, they were always confined to different beds. Then there was this, a scandal of such epic proportions it was condemned by the Pope, and there was a move in Congress to pass a bill to prevent Liz from returning to the United States.”
The drama lends itself to the stage, featuring as it does such indelible, gabby personalities as singer Eddie Fisher, Taylor’s fourth husband, to whom she was married at the time (after having stolen him from actress and Carrie Fisher’s mom Debbie Reynolds); film director Joseph L. Mankiewicz; and actor Rex Harrison.
“The story also echoes the disastrous sex scandal that was the relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, which was ruinous to the Roman Empire, much in the way the film Cleopatra was the most expensive film ever made up to that point and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox,” Wright said.
Ironically, given the fall’s events, it was the Alley’s 2015 renovation — after the infamous Memorial Day flood — that allowed the theater to take on an ambitious project like Cleo, which moves from backstage scenes to moments of actual filming. “The old theater was designed at a time when elaborate sets were out of fashion, but now the stage can do anything you want it to do,” said Elizabeth Frankel, the Alley’s director of new work.
Taylor wore 65 different outfits in the movie; she earned a Guinness world record, for “most costume changes in a film,” so you can expect the Alley’s costume department has been hard at work creating a spectacle. The play was developed as part of the Alley All New Festival, which debuted in January 2016. “It’s really exciting to be working with Lawrence Wright, who is arguably the most exciting writer living in Texas, on such a fun, romantic piece,” added Frankel.
For his part, Wright reiterates just how much Cleo has been a passion project for him. “I decided early on in my writing career that I was going to do work that was either really important or really fun, and damn everything else. Cleo is, in a way, a meditation on love, and love can be very damaging. It’s chaotic, uncontrolled and mischievous. Writing this has easily been the most fun I’ve had in my professional career, and I hope the audience will feel the same way.”