Longtime readers of this blog, especially those who've attended my New York City events, will recognize Byron Nilsson as the MC. He's performed that duty three times, most recently in December 2019 for the launch of Bobby in Naziland (since retitled A Brooklyn Memoir). Soon after that event, a pandemic put the world into a state of suspended animation and brought public gatherings to a halt.
Now that Covid 19 has eased, I've stuck my toe back into the waters of society, and last weekend my wife and I ventured into the hamlet of Glen, in Upstate New York, to visit Byron and his wife, Susan Whiteman, now an elected member of the town council. The occasion was the premiere of a one-man show that Byron wrote and stars in, The Fat Man: An Audience With Sydney Greenstreet.
One of the advantages of living in a town like Glen, nestled amid farmland in the Mohawk Valley, and with a significant Amish population rolling by in horse-drawn buggies (as if the 20th century never happened), is that it gave Byron, as a member of an organization called the Glen Conservancy, the opportunity to acquire an old church building across the street from his house and turn it into Glen Conservancy Hall, a performance space featuring an eclectic program of music and theatre. This is where Byron debuted The Fat Man, on July 15.
Best known for his roles as Kasper Gutman, aka The Fat Man, in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Signor Ferrari in Casablanca (1942), Greenstreet, who played opposite such iconic figures as Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, was a man of great appetites who weighed as much as 350 pounds, and whose size was an essential element of his characters. Byron, too, has struggled with his weight and has a profound understanding of and sympathy for Greenstreet's battle with his waistline. This was his inspiration for writing and performing The Fat Man.
The play is set in 1949, in Greestreet's Los Angeles home. The actor, in ill health (he'd die in 1954, age 74) and near the end of his career, is expecting John Huston to join him for dinner and offer him a part in The African Queen, the movie Huston is about to film. The director is late, and as he waits—Waiting for Huston—Greenstreet sips tea, eats shortbread, drinks whiskey, and talks about his career, marriage, and weight. He grows increasingly tense and berates his housekeeper on the telephone; she's supposed to be there already to cook lamb chops for dinner. There are some funny bits, such as Greenstreet's impression of Lionel Barrymore, in a wheelchair, sputtering angrily, and an anecdote he tells about having played "a Negro jockey." "You don't believe I played a Negro jockey?" he says. "I was smaller then."
Byron has created for himself the role of a lifetime. To say that he inhabits Greenstreet would be an understatement. Skillfully directed by David Baecker, The Fat Man is a show that deserves to reach an audience well beyond Glen Conservancy Hall. I can only hope that it does, and soon.
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