September 19, 2015

"Desire" Offers Six Perspectives on the Uneasy Passions of Tennessee Williams

Resurrection seems to be the latest theater trend. News has recently come that shows featuring holograms of Billie Holiday and Whitney Houston will tour across the country. And now, on both sides of the Atlantic, short stories by long-dead playwrights are being given new lives onstage: Life's Little Nothings, dramatizations of five stories by Anton Chekhov, ended a short run in London this week and Desire, an evening of six one-act plays based on stories by Tennessee Williams, is now running at the 59E59 Theaters through Oct. 10.

The Acting Company commissioned six playwrights of different ages, ethnicities and genders to tackle the Williams stories, which were mainly written before The Glass Menagerie made the playwright famous, although in some cases published later.

It also recruited Michael Wilson, who oversaw a 10-year Williams marathon when he was artistic director at Hartford Stage, to direct the resulting works and assemble an ensemble of nine actors who, with varying degrees of finesse, take on multiple roles in the six plays (click here to read more about that process).

Although a longtime fan of Williams' plays, I'd never read his short stories so I decided to do so before my theatergoing buddy Bill and I went to see Desire. The themes (the hungers for love, sex, food for the soul) and even some of the characters were reminiscent of those from his plays and I was eager to see what the commissioned playwrights would do with them.

As you might expect they met with differing degrees of success. The results are particularly mixed for Beth Henley, who, like Williams, is a Pulitzer Prize winner with roots in the south and a fondness for high-strung female characters. She adapted "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin," a coming-of-age-tale about a young brother and sister who both fall tragically under the spell of a beautiful young violinist.

Henley hews close to the storyline of the shy sister's inability to cope with her budding sexuality and the younger brother's awakening to his but the subtleties of the story's melancholy get lost in the transfer to the stage and the poetic flourishes that Wilson substitutes—having the actor playing the violinist mime his bicycle rides around the town—seem almost silly.

Marcus Gardley, whose own work shares Williams' heightened feel for language, has an even more difficult time with the story called "Desire and the Black Masseur," which chronicles the sadomasochistic relationship between the title character and one of his white patrons.

Gardley, the only African-American playwright in the group, gives a name to the masseur, whom Williams only refers to as "the Negro," makes him the central character and changes the title of the play to Desire Quenched by Touch. But, in the end, neither he nor Wilson is able to overcome the disturbingly Grand Guignol ending that foreshadows events in Williams' own Suddenly, Last Summer.

Despite this fondness for the tragic and sometimes macabre, Williams could be funny and the most crowd-pleasing of the evening's works find ways to tap into that humor. Rebecca Gilman does it by updating "The Field of Blue Children" from the 1930s to the present, complete with smart phones, mean girls and the pop slang in which almost every other word is "like."

What she keeps is the basic storyline of an affluent college girl who is prized for her beauty but yearns for a more meaningful life, which she finds when she falls for a poor poet who recognizes the poetry in her. She is then faced with the choice of running off with him or marrying her frat-boy fiancé. The short story is more poignant but Gilman hits the right notes and Kristen Adele does a good job of conveying the girl's inner turmoil.

The most successful play of the evening—and the one I had most looked forward to—was John Guare's take on "The Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” a 1943 story that reads as thought it were the first draft of The Glass Menagerie, complete with the presence of the Wingfields--Tom, Amanda and Laura—the skipped typing classes, the beloved glass figurines and, of course, the visit from the gentleman caller.

Guare avoids trying to better what Williams so beautifully did with the story. Instead, his play, which he calls You Lied to Me About Centralia, follows Jim, the gentleman caller, after he leaves the Wingfield home and goes to meet his fiancée. The scene between them is a hoot, but tinged with the bittersweet regret that Jim feels for what might have been with Laura. Plus it's great fun to identify all the references to Menagerie and Williams' own proclivities.

None of these mini homages rises to the level of Williams at his best but they are satisfying reminders of what that best could be.

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