Life Studies

Photo by Ed Krieger

UCLA, 1979. THE RALPH FREUD PLAYHOUSE IS OVERFLOWING with students who leap to their feet at the sight of a tired old man ambling to the stage. After the ovation abates and the throng sits down, the distinguished speaker is suddenly alone in the spotlight and begins fiddling with the microphone for a few seconds.

"I was just in your Greeen Roooom," Tennessee Williams drawls, "and I obsuhrved from the many pohsters of illuhstrious plays put on at this distinguished univuhrsity . . . not a single play amuhng them is bah me."

A slowly swelling wave of embarrassed laughter engulfs the hall.

Williams shields his eyes from the spotlight's glare and remarks that the light is playing havoc on his complexion -- he's self-conscious about his ruddy cheeks and the physical effects of being inebriated. Williams admits that he is not familiar with the works of the day's most produced playwrights, Lanford Wilson and Sam Shepard, then gamely answers some of the stupidest questions ever asked in public:

"Did the Civil War have an impact on your writing?"

"The Civil War was slahghtly before mah tahm."

Williams shifts gears with a 90-minute, meandering, droning reading from his play, Sweet Bird of Youth. Some people leave after half an hour, while those who stay are unexpectedly shown a window onto the soul of a great and tortured playwright near the end of his life -- a performance by Williams portraying himself -- solipsistic, awkward and passively confrontational.

The problem with San Francisco­based playwright Joe Besecker's biographical drama, Tennessee in the Summer (in Barbara Bain's fine revival at Studio City's Laurelgrove Theater), lies in the way the play, unlike its subject, defies no expectations of who Tennessee Williams was. The image of the self-abusing Great Writer, with Pulitzer prizes in his pocket yet pummeled by critics with little better to do, has been de rigueur for decades. F. Scott Fitzgerald shows up in similar meltdown mode across town at Hollywood's MET Theater in Joshua Rebell's Gatsby in Hollywood. Were it not for the difference in their dialects and sexual predilections, the central characters from each play would be interchangeable -- chain-smoking, bottle in hand, railing about their woes and slowly grinding down those closest to them.

While Gatsby has the wit of Algonquin Circle ex-pats Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, et al., Tennessee oozes like a wound that keeps reopening, which is quite consistent with its romantic pathology. The play constructs a gilded frame around the legend of philandering Tennessee (Jack Heller, who bears some resemblance to Ernest Hemingway and brings subtle, fey gestures to the role, and a slightly nasal tone) and his tempestuous love affair with loyal, cancer-stricken Frankie Merlo (the hunky Robert Standley), and asks us to view the tragic painting as though we've never seen it before.

In one of several flashbacks, Williams' sister Rose (Louise Davis, playing the role with a muted, screw-loose intensity) crawls into bed with Tennessee and they frolic like kids, though getting way too close for comfort. This, of course, occurs before Rose's real-life lobotomy (she was the inspiration for Laura in The Glass Menagerie) and Williams' own stint in a mental institution.

While designer Thomas Meleck drapes genteel ivory linen over the 1972 New York City hotel room where the main action unfolds, the literary colors are earth and rust in a docudrama that's half about loss and half about Williams' feminine-masculine conflicts that literally drove him to drink.

The play's most intriguing conceit finds a Woman (Shareen Mitchell, powerfully sultry and steely) prancing in a satin negligee and trying throughout the play to seduce Tennessee, who is generally too self-absorbed to notice. We learn early that the Woman is actually Williams' femme side, whom he keeps at arms' distance. (Not surprisingly, she behaves as an amalgam of Blanche and Stella.)

That the work grapples with stereotypes does not mean that it's simplistic. Rather, thanks to Bain and her ensemble, the portraits are textured and complex, but in the service of affirming our predispositions rather than challenging them. I'm not convinced this is the theater's noblest purpose.

A SIMILAR PLIGHT AFFECTS WRITER-PERFORMER Alanna Ubach and writer-director Ian McCrudden in Patriotic Bitch at Stages Theater in Hollywood. The one-woman show provides an opportunity for pretty Ubach -- with her effervescent, gym-honed stage presence -- to try out an array of characters who reside on and around a NYC street corner. Homeless Puerto Rican Yolanda provides the story's anchor, grabbing her crotch and moon-walking while peddling T-shirts and scarves ("Banderos Americanos!") to help support her pregnant sister by her side, before morphing into the sundry folk who cross their path. These include a butch exercise instructor, a corpulent African-American woman auditioning for Annie!, a snotty TV personality, an Iranian woman in a Catholic confessional. Ubach's timing is perfect, while her monologues each take far too long to make their sliver of a point. With her down-homey street portrait of America filtered through multiethnic cartoons, Ubach sits in the same room with Heather Woodbury, Danny Hoch and Eric Bogosian, though she fails to bring much new to the table. In one scene Yolanda's prayers are answered when the Iranian, in a capricious fit of conscience, gives Yolanda's sister $500. The closing motif is of the pregnant, homeless woman on her back, her fist raised to the sky in triumph. The image is so ludicrously upbeat, one can only suspect that Ubach and McCrudden are gunning for a TV special.

TENNESSEE IN THE SUMMER | By JOE BESECKER | At the LAURELGROVE THEATER, 12265 Ventura Blvd., Studio City | Through August 24

PATRIOTIC BITCH | By ALANNA UBACH and IAN McCRUDDEN | Presented by CHAD GREEN PICTURES and STAGES THEATER CENTER, 1540 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood | Through September 28


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