Gregg Ostrin's new play, Kowalski (directed by Rich Shaw at North Hollywood's Two Roads Theatre) unfolds in a 1947 Provincetown, Mass., resort house (a realistic kitchenette, bar and living room, designed by Rand Sagers), where 36-year-old Tennessee Williams (Curt Bonnem) is still bathing in the glow of his first hit, The Glass Menagerie. With a slender build, pencil mustache, and dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, he watches the reaction of his friend and stage director Margo Jones (Alexa Hamilton) to a new script he's just written, A Streetcar Named Desire.
Jones goes into raptures, curling something into a fetal position before moaning in ecstasy, one would presume at the play's emotional depths. "It's the greatest play written since The Glass Menagerie," she tells him. (Jones co-directed that play on Broadway with Eddie Jones.)
Williams careens from ecstasies over his own brilliance to paroxysms of insecurity, leading to a facile, childlike interpretation that the actor tries valiantly but in vain to fight.
At this point in the plot, Jones believes she might still be in the running to direct Streetcar. After all, Williams called her to visit him in Provincetown for the purpose of reading the script. Her overwrought reaction raises a number of questions: Is she auditioning to direct it, and is she therefore engaging in a form of flattery that's demeaning to both of them? (Given the vain/fragile portrayal of Williams, this may be her only valid career choice.)
If this theory is true, it's a tawdry depiction, even if Streetcar is the greatest work since The Glass Menagerie. This is because if directors are being honest, amid their excitement over discovering the merits of a brand new play, they generally have questions about the relationships between the characters, or at least the desire to test their interpretations of those emotional dynamics against those of the playwright — even a playwright who now has the cachet of a Broadway hit.
If Jones is afraid to ask a single question or express a single concern about the script, one has to wonder if she's being more of a strategist than a friend, or whether playwright Ostrin, in his speculative biography, has a greater stake in reinforcing the common perception that Streetcar is indeed a great play than in taking commonly held truisms and embellishing them with twists and turns.
"What if it's a disaster? What if it flops?" Williams asks of Jones. She assures him that it's not going to flop (as though anybody can predict such outcomes in the theater). Williams goes on to expose all his insecurities, that Menagerie was delicate whereas Streetcar is base and guttural.
"What if they decide that I reached for the stars and missed?" Williams continues. "No, I know they're going to hate it, I just know it."
This isn't character insight, it's spew — as though Williams is emotionally a petulant 10-year-old. This may be biographical strategy to diminish the legend, which is certainly Ostrin's privilege. The complaint here is that the decision is tedious to sit through.
Later in the action, young and haughty Marlon Brando (Ignacio Serricchio) — sent by Streetcar's already-hired director Elia Kazan (news Jones barely flinches at) to impress Williams — shows up three days late to audition for the role of Stanley Kowalski, which Brando will eventually land despite Williams' initial predisposition for John Garfield in the role. And the play largely concerns the events leading up to that change of heart.
To win Williams' heart, Brando conjures a story of an affair he had with a young woman in a mental asylum, not unlike Williams' sister, Rose. Williams calls him out on this act of transparent manipulation and degradation, in a moment where the play starts to shine.
Still, as played by Serricchio, Brando wins Williams' confidence largely through swagger, interpreted by Williams as erotic bravado, culminating in one scene with Brando grabbing the playwright by the neck in a near kiss, and playing to the kinds of sadomasochistic fantasies that so inform Streetcar.
Perhaps this is meant to show Williams' keen understanding of how Streetcar clicks along its rails, but it also reveals the playwright governed more by his groin than his brain — the problem not being some diminishment of a legend's grandeur but the diminishment of complexity and characterization to that of a soap opera.
Kowalski is redeemed somewhat with the arrival of Brando's latest girlfriend, Jo (Sasha Higgins), whom Brando had kept waiting outside. In fact, though appearing late in the 90-minute one-act, she jump-starts the action.
This has largely to do with Higgins' droll yet innocent reactions to being in the presence of the now-famous Williams. She's a kid from Brooklyn and an aspiring actress herself who, in her own way, shows more emotional maturity and a keener understanding of her place in the world than either of the men with her.
In a particularly cruel game to keep Brando in the room, Williams offers to audition Jo for the role of Stella. It doesn't take her long to catch on to the ruse. She's a giant surrounded by guys who are merely playing giants.
I saw Williams once in a public appearance at UCLA. Though he was toasted at the time ("These lights appear to have an ill effect on my complexion") there was a gravity to his cadence and in the confidence with which he could stand for a moment of silence and reflection. It's that absence of gravity and of reflection that so mars this production.
Williams in the flesh revealed the wisdom of a tortured soul not with overblown poeticism and neurotic apprehensions, as Kowalski depicts, but with an understanding of the scale of things and of his place on that scale.
KOWALSKI | By Gregg Ostrin | Presented by Two Roads Theatre | 4348 Tujunga Ave., Studio City | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7:30 p.m. | Through Aug. 7 | (818) 762-2272 | tworoadsgallery.com