Two of a kind

Two of a kind

Val Kilmer transforms into America’s sharpest wit in ‘Citizen Twain’

By Jana J. Monji 08/15/2013

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While performing at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in “Citizen Twain,” his one-person show about iconic American humorist and author Mark Twain, actor Val Kilmer would open the production by walking into the audience and shaking hands with a third of the people in attendance.  

That might be a little bit more difficult to do at the much larger Pasadena Playhouse, where Kilmer’s self-written and -directed production opens a 10-day run starting Wednesday night.

“I’m really excited about Pasadena,” Kilmer says during a recent phone interview. “The size of the theater with Pasadena makes it a bigger show, and we’ve got a fancier beginning. The Kirk Douglas is beautiful and every seat is a great seat. It’s very intimate and a fun way to start by literally walking through and meeting half of the audience or at least 100 people out of 300. I imagine I could do some version of that in the Pasadena Playhouse. We have a couple of tricks up our sleeves.”

Unlike Hal Holbrook, who won a Tony Award and an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Twain (real name Samuel Clemens) since first donning a white suit, white wig and bushy white mustache in 1954, Kilmer’s version of the man is decidedly different. For one thing, Kilmer’s Twain speaks about Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, a target of the writer’s sometimes acerbic pen in a 1903 book called “Christian Science.” 

In fact, Kilmer has been trying to get a film made about Eddy, who died in December 1910 at the age of 89. Clemens died in April 1910 at age 74. The two apparently had never met

“Hal is presenting one state of mind of Mark Twain,” Kilmer explains. In Holbrook’s version, “[Twain] is on stage lecturing as if it was round the turn of the last century. This is a very particular way of presenting his mood. He knows he’s in public. He’s not going to mention something too private or too personal.”

Kilmer says his Twain is less guarded, less assured. Here, he says, “Twain is disoriented and confused and dead. I touch on his spiritual search, his shortcomings — the fact that he’s vain, the fact that’s he’s petty. He had serious challenges with addictions. These are all things that I haven’t seen Hal touch on.”

If it sounds as though Kilmer’s “Citizen Twain” is too serious of a depiction of one of America’s leading wits, don’t worry. Kilmer’s Twain is American’s first standup comedian, telling jokes on stage, even in his conversations with God.

“I really respect comedians. I grew up loving Richard Pryor and Steven Martin. I learned of the guys they really loved, like Lenny Bruce and Redd Foxx, who were more radical and committed to social meaning because of their backgrounds,” Kilmer says. “I liked the way Lenny Bruce talked about racial issues, language and drugs. Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor were in the same category — so disarmingly funny.”

Kilmer’s Twain elicits plenty of laughs during his time on stage, but the actor doesn’t consider himself to be a funny man. “I can’t even tell a joke, so I don’t usually try. But I really love people who do,” he says.

Eddy — Kilmer says he only learned of her relationship with Twain early this century — isn’t a major figure in the 90-minute play, but ultimately Twain must answer to God for some of his trespasses against her. 

“I didn’t know of their connection until 14 or 15 years ago,” he said. “I started writing [about Eddy] 13 years ago and I’ve been trying to get a movie made for three years.”

Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, Kilmer attended Berkeley Hall School, a Christian Science school, in Los Angeles, until ninth grade. After that, he attended Chatsworth High School, with classmates that included Kevin Spacey and Mare Winningham. From there, Kilmer attended Julliard School from 1977 to 1981.

Kilmer rose to fame opposite Tom Cruise in the 1986 film “Top Gun.” In 1991, he played Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” And in 1993, he became the Caped Crusader in Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Forever.” In 1997’s “The Saint,” as Simon Templar Kilmer assumes 12 separate disguises, so it’s not that much of a stretch for the veteran thespian to submerge himself into the role of Mark Twain.

Kilmer ends the show with a relaxed audience talk back while his makeup and wig are being removed. All in all, “It’s fun to play characters who improve your ability to get a date,” he says with a laugh. “Put on the Betty White fright wig and chicks flock.”  

“Citizen Twain” opens Wednesday and continues until Aug. 30 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. Pasadena. For more information, call (626) 356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org.

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