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Jimmy: The Story of James Dean

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nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 20, 2013

Jimmy: The Story of James Dean

Jacob Moushey in a scene from Jimmy: The Story of James Dean | Jack Norton Gilbert

James Dean was only 24 when he died in that car crash in 1955. He didn't know that he was going to be nominated for Oscars for his first film, East of Eden, and his last, Giant; even though he may have wished it, could he have even suspected that he would become an iconic movie star remembered decades after his untimely demise?

In Jimmy: The Story of James Dean, actor/playwright Jacob Moushey introduces us to the 24-year-old Dean, on the evening before that fatal accident. He's alone in his trailer, waiting to be called for filming on Giant, and to pass the time he has a conversation with his mother, who died when he was 9 years old. We get the idea that he talks to her a lot, though perhaps not so much lately. He recalls moments from his life and gets a lot off his chest. Dramaturgically, it's quite a brilliant device that Moushey has come up with, allowing us to get into Dean's head and under his skin with minimal artifice.

Moushey is himself 24, and what's most striking about this portrait is how young this James Dean is. He's accomplished a lot, and knows his value as an actor; but what we see here mostly is a fellow grappling with adulthood and the first realizations of self-knowledge that come with that. He calls his East of Eden director "Mr. Kazan" and apologizes any time he says a curse word to his momma; he ponders what lessons may lie in his few failed relationships and is simultaneously boastful and regretful about some of his exploits. His Jimmy doesn't know he's about to die (though we do, of course); what he seems to want most of all is to make his mother proud.

The show is about 45 minutes long, and Moushey leaves us wanting more when it's over. Directed smartly by Matthew Cleaver, Moushey conjures Dean's aura through canny physicalization; he doesn't so much look like Dean as channel his restless energy. It's a throughly convincing performance, and a richly layered one, that reveals not only the particulars of the character but what makes him so universal and relatable.

Jimmy is a thoroughly engaging and compelling work, that made me hungry to learn more about James Dean—and to see whatever Jacob Moushey, who is a smart and talented actor and playwright, does next.