William Shatner – idol of millions (billions?) of science fiction fans and would-be pitchmen – comes to Broadway in a one-man show, Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It. To witness this spectacle among the true-believers is not quite the same as attending a straight play; rather, it has all the flavor of an old fashioned tent meeting. Whatever one might say about the show, Shatner has more dedicated, demonstrative, supportive and clinically obese fans than any Broadway actor I have ever seen.
Before going into Shatner’s performance, we should make clear that this is not a “one man show” in the accepted sense. Do not expect Vincent Price as Oscar Wilde or Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson; this is a personal appearance, where Shatner tells anecdotes detailing how famous he is and how much fun he has had at the expense of a doting public. Celebrity confessional seems to be a new focus on Broadway – Carrie Fisher, another science fiction icon, made hay (and money) with a recent “one-woman show” where she detailed her problems of addiction and told some moldy Hollywood anecdotes. However, I do find it specious to bill a fan event a “one-man show,” particularly when the actor involved does little other than natter about the past.
Even within that framework, though, Shatner’s World is slim pickings indeed. In a mix of anecdotes and film clips, Shatner takes pot shots at past co-stars, talks about the glories of live television, and tells interesting stories about people as diverse of Christopher Plummer and Lon Chaney, Jr. Some of these stories are interesting and amusing, but Shatner also tells too, too many borscht belt jokes that were stale when Eddie Cantor did them. As an actor there is nothing that can be said of William Shatner that hasn’t been said of George Hamilton or Robert Wagner – men who are largely famous for having become famous.
Shatner’s prowess as an actor is something we are expected to take on faith. In detailing a triumphal turn as Shakespeare’s Henry V (when he understudied a sick Christopher Plummer), Shatner ends the story with showing us his press clip. An actor, rather than a celebrity, would’ve provided a snippet of Henry (a part rich in monologs) for our delectation, but that’s never the point in Shatner’s World. The point is he did it, by jingo, and now on to the next triumph…
One must, however, applaud Shatner for his robust energy and extreme vigor. A man of 80, he prances up-and-down the stage for an hour and 40 minutes, sometimes shouting, sometimes whispering, and even dancing here and there. He plays largely against an office chair, which doubles as everything from a car to a bed to a horse, and takes much-needed pauses during film clips. As an act of endurance, it is a formidable feat for both the actor and the audience.
Shatner also tells a great many personal stories, including the death his third wife, and how using his prized horse as a stud ruined that animal, and his guilt at having to put it down. Surprisingly, the horse story goes on for some 10 minutes, and his wife is largely mentioned in passing. Even as a confessional, the show also lacks depth-of-feeling.
And if one were to sum-up Shatner -- the show and the man -- that would be the key complaint. Many are engaged by Shatner’s innate hamminess and the fact that he happily embraces the joke that he has become. But it is this lack of depth-of-feeling, this sense of a barren interior, that differentiates a fan icon from an actor of any real sensitivity or warmth. Shatner has become the exemplar of our ego-centric age: we seem enamored of people who disproportionally love themselves. I had the sense that the audience ovation was also self-reflective – by cheering Shatner, we applaud the neediest part of ourselves. Shatner comes off as a strange mix of ego-maniacal manchild and wide-eyed innocent: that might be enough to fill the outer reaches of space during Prime Time, but not nearly enough to inhabit the even greater vastness that is the theater.