February 24, 2016

"Tennessee Williams 1982": Two Late Plays That May Appeal to Only a Dedicated Few

So much of my time is spent trying to keep up with shows that open on Broadway and those produced by the larger off-Broadway companies that I rarely get to see smaller off-off Broadway shows. But when the Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company invited me to its latest production, I knew I had to make time to go even though I'd never heard of the company before. Why? Because I'm a sucker for Tennessee Williams and the company is presenting two of the last one-act plays Williams wrote the year before he died from choking on a medicine bottle cap in1983.

The double-bill called Tennessee Williams 1982 opened Sunday night at Walkerspace in Tribeca and, under the direction of Cosmin Chivu, a Rumanian-born director who's made a specialty of Williams' later works (click here to read a Q&A with him) it's been given a modest, albeit enthusiastic, production. 

Both plays venture away from Williams' home territory of the south. A Recluse and His Guest, which has never been produced before, is set "in a far northern town in a remote time" and has the air of a fable. The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde takes place in an attic in London and falls closer to Joe Orton's nihilistic romps. But both are filled with the wounded souls that populate all of Williams' works and who so often touch me.

The central figures in Recluse are Nevrika, a morally-ambiguous woman, who, like Blanche DuBois, has come to the end of her line as she wanders into an unfamiliar community hoping to find salvation there; and Ott, the titular outcast who provides a sanctuary that is threatened when her past is revealed to him.

But Williams had toughened up in the intervening years between A Streetcar Named Desire and A Recluse and His Guest and in the end Nevrika doesn't depend on the kindness of strangers but gathers up strength within herself.

Nevrika is played by Kate Skinner and Ott by Ford Austin, neither is listed as a company member but both have long lists of credits in regional theaters and smaller films. They work hard here but are unable to evoke the poetry that anchors even Williams' most outlandish flights of fancy. And without the lyricism, the work totters on the brink of bombast and balderdash.

The versatile Skinner returns as the harpyish title character in the second play but the focus of this tale is Mint, a cripple who lives (or perhaps is held hostage) in the attic of a boarding house where he is mistreated by his landlady's son and even by the old frenemy who visits him for tea.

Mint gets around by attaching himself to hooks that descend from the ceiling. And I couldn't help feeling sorry for Jade Ziane, the appealing actor who plays Mint, as he swung from one hook to another, awkwardly clamping the metal closures onto a harness fitted around his waist and, as the script requires, periodically crashing to the ground. 

As John Lahr's exhaustive biography makes clear, Williams reveled in rough sex. Apparently liberated in the post-Stonewall era from having to cloak his inclinations in metaphor, he puts them out in full view: Mme. Le Monde opens with a male-on-male rape scene, ends with another act of violence and the time in between isn't pleasant either, nor is it meant to be.

No doubt constricted by a small budget, Chivu makes do with one set for both plays. The dominant element in Justin West's design is a collection of old TV sets scattered around a space that resembles a junk shop. 

The TVs make some sense in the relatively contemporary Mme. Le Monde but none in Recluse and Chivu's decision to use them for projections makes too literal what should have been suggestive. He also underscores both plays with over-emphatic live music that calls far more attention to itself than it should.

Yet despite everything I've said, I'm glad I had the opportunity to see these works, neither of which is likely to be staged often. But unless you're a Williams fanatic like me, you may not feel your time was as well spent.


Debra Turner said...

Jan, it's always appreciated when lesser known works of well-known playwrights, as well as, brand new works are produced. I enjoyed your review!

I wish there were as many new great plays that make it to Broadway and off Broadway as there seemingly are of revivals of old great plays. I can only imagine what it must have been like to live in the era of the first showings of "A Street Car Named Desire," "The Glass Menagerie," and Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" and "The Death Of A Salesman." Hopefully we'll have future golden ages of movies and plays. (IMO, television via cable is pretty good right now.)

Broadway & Me said...

Debra, thanks so much for the kind words. I know what you mean about the era of Miller and Williams. And don't forget that the major O'Neill plays (ICEMAN COMETH, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY, etc.) were getting their first productions during that time too. But we're also in a pretty exciting time right now. Playwrights like Annie Baker, Stephen Adley Guirgis, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Stephen Karam, Suzan-Lori Parks and Lynn Nottage (among others) are doing some really fine work that often gives me as much pleasure as that of the old masters.