When a play’s title includes the names of two towering figures of American history, you might imagine the two would be on equal footing. When it comes to Salt Lake Acting Company’s world premiere of Grant & Twain, though, one of them clearly dominates the production, and it’s probably not the one you’d expect.
Penned by Elizabeth Diggs and a recipient of the Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award, Grant & Twain delves into the unlikely friendship between former president and Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant and brash author Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain). And while the plot revolves around Grant’s efforts to pen his memoirs before dying, and is full of flashbacks to the war, Morgan Lund’s portrayal of Clemens rules this show.
That’s for good reason, as Lund is better in Grant & Twain than I’ve ever seen him in myriad productions in Salt Lake City through the years. His bluster, his accent, and his physical appearance combine into a vivid portrayal that makes Grant & Twainworth seeing all on its own. And truth be told, Marshall Bell’s Grant is downright meek in comparison. Part of that is intentional–Grant was notoriously averse to publicity or self-aggrandizement, while Clemens loved both. But the difference in the energy of scenes when Lund is on stage, versus when he isn’t, is so striking as to be a detriment at times.
Other strong performances do buoy the proceedings. David Spencer is winning as Adam Badeau, Grant’s personal secretary and an author jealous of Clemens’ skills and relationship with Grant. Brien K. Jones’ portrayal of Grant’s butler and confidante Harrison Terrell helps lend texture to Grant through their caring relationship. Ryon Sharette plays a young Union soldier in the flashback scenes, and showcases a nice evolution of his character in limited time on stage. And while Kathryn Atwood is fine as Grant’s doting wife Julia, her character often seemed superfluous to the story–unfortunate since she’s the only female character.
The first act moves along nicely, riding waves of Clemens’ outbursts about Wall Street charlatans ruining the country and the boring prose of Badeau. Act II lags a bit, going heavy on the battle flashbacks as Grant races his cancer to finish his memoirs. A little more Clemens as Grant & Twain moves towards it conclusion would have helped.
Still, Digg’s script is full of enough wit, and Lund’s performance is so winning, that it’s relatively easy to get past any of Grant & Twain‘s weaknesses. And any fans of American history will find a lot to enjoy in the relationship between the two 19th century icons.
Grant & Twain runs at Salt Lake Acting Company through March 2. Visit SLAC’s website for showtimes and tickets. Photo courtesy of SLAC.