Hal Holbrook, who turns 87 on Feb. 17, has played Mark Twain more than 2,000 times since he first donned a white suit and bushy mustache in 1954. In fact, Holbrook has played Twain for a good 15 years longer than did Samuel Clemens, the real name of the legendary writer.
For audiences attending Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight!, such as the appreciative crowd at the sold-out performance Saturday night at CSUN's Valley Performing Arts Center, the question is no longer how well Holbrook nails the role but what modules of Twain wit and wisdom will be selected to build that night's one-man show.
This being an election year, Holbrook included a heavy dose of commentary about Congress and political campaigning. "Imagine that you were an idiot," he said. "Then imagine that you were in Congress. There, I repeated myself." He railed about campaign speeches built on half-truths and a gullible public all too willing to swallow the misinformation.
Such familiar nonpartisan insults are almost too easy. Fortunately, Holbrook dug deeper. He quoted Twain about the corrupting influence of big money on campaigns, making it seem almost as if the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tried a century ago to warn of the dangers posed by a Supreme Court ruling that allows unlimited political contributions.
As Twain, Holbrook also took aim at greed on Wall Street, which he called "theft practiced as a profession."
Perhaps the favorite target, though, was religion and, particularly, the words and deeds of leaders of various Christian denominations. Whether seeking to clothe native Hawaiians who were oblivious to their state of undress or beseeching the Almighty to cause pain and death to military foes, Twain struck at religious foolishness and hypocrisy in numerous segments sprinkled throughout the show.
At the same time, Holbrook might want to consider retiring other Twain observations that have become less relevant to our times. He pounces on journalists for being too eager to twist the truth and for abusing their considerable power over public opinion. While these were valid concerns until recently, those allegations are today less applicable to mainstream journalists and more suited to internet bloggers and partisan cable newscasters, neither of which Twain could have foreseen.
Holbrook presents Twain not too long before his death in 1910 at age 74, offering up opinions and reflecting on his life. When Holbrook began the role, his character was considerably older than he was. For more than a decade now, Holbrook has been playing a younger man.
That, in one way, has been a boon for the actor. On occasion during the two-hour show, Holbrook forgot a line or bungled an observation. However, given Twain's age onstage, the audience seemed more than willing to attribute the slips to the author rather than the actor.
Overall, though, Holbrook continues to do Twain proud. His stage presence is vibrant and his mannerisms convincing. If anything, Holbrook may be too generous with his performance. By eliminating the reading of a long passage from Huckleberry Finn in the second half, Holbrook could effectively remove the show's biggest speed bump and improve the overall pace.