George Rose won two Tony Awards and enjoyed widespread admiration from fellow actors. He kept a South American wild cat as a pet at home and on the road. He also died a tortuous death in the Dominican Republic at the hands of the teen he had earlier adopted and three other men, including the boy's father.
Rose's wealth of theater know-how and snappy wit made him irresistible to a young actor named Ed Dixon, who has fashioned his reminiscences into a modest one-man, one-act play called "Georgie: My Adventures with George Rose."
The light and dark sides of Rose are covered in the show, which Dixon is performing at Signature Theatre in a premiere production smoothly guided and designed by company artistic director Eric Schaeffer.
Dixon, whose long career includes work on Broadway and a memorable portrayal of Max in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard" at Signature, makes a genial, generally polished storyteller.
Although the sound of an orchestra tuning up as he arrives on the sparsely furnished stage suggests something highly theatrical is about to begin, Dixon keeps things quite low-key and conversational. This approach helps lull the audience into just the right frame of mind so the play's inevitable dark turn can startle, as it must.
Before that turn, Dixon paints a vivid portrait of the British-born character actor triumphing in assorted roles; holding court in his Greenwich Village flat (or dishing passersby on the streets outside); thrilling to the legend-inducing 1984 U.S. debut of the late, mighty-voiced Bulgarian soprano Ghena Dimitrova at Carnegie Hall in a concert version of Verdi's "Nabucco."
When Dixon says of Rose's company "I was hypnotized," his enthusiasm registers so strongly that you wish you could have known the fellow, too.
And there's no denying the fun in hearing Dixon recall his friend's campy put-downs or retell one of Rose's darn good off-color jokes. Assorted inside-theater tattle, especially concerning actor Ray Walston and choreographer-director Joe Layton, provides some wicked entertainment along the way.
It's well worth being reminded of Rose's remarkable achievements on stages he shared with the likes of Katharine Hepburn (in "Coco"), John Gielgud and Richard Burton, not to mention Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt (in "The Pirates of Penzance"). Rose's Tonys were earned for his performances in "My Fair Lady" and "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."
Such highlights get their due in "Georgie," but it's possible to wish for a little more detail in some of chapters of this fascinating story (maybe a little less in others), as well as more vibrant writing here and there.
And while Dixon deftly conjures up the shock he experienced when he went to the Dominican Republic and learned of Rose's other life, various aspects of the murder go unaddressed or only lightly explored.
Still, "Georgie" succeeds overall in painting a telling portrait of a gifted, colorful and flawed figure who lit up the stage for decades. And, like Rose, Dixon is very good company.