The Kindness of Strangers
Courtesy University of Texas at AustinFame is a bee. It has a song -- It has a sting -- Ah, too, it has a wing.
IS IT MERE COINCIDENCE THAT TENNESSEE Williams' Summer and Smoke (in a strong production at the Fountain Theater) and The Two-Character Play (at Artshare) are both performing locally, just as Four Roses -- a series of monologues extracted from Williams' female characters -- is getting under way at the Actors' Gang? Not to mention John Patrick Langs' Desire, a new play that more or less picks up where The Glass Menagerie left off. There hasn't been a phenomenon like this in a couple of years, not since John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea bobbed up in a trio of different productions within a season. But Danny could be explained as actor-showcase frenzy, as a play that actors love to crawl inside in order to feel all gooey before an audience of casting agents.
This Williams ripple is something different -- an attraction not so much to a play as to a playwright. Or to an emotional sensibility rather like a hotel room near a Louisiana bayou lit by a single dangling bulb, with sadomasochism hanging on one wall, loneliness on another, lunacy on the third, and the entire place echoing with the lilting, genteel cadences of the Deep South.
On the fourth wall stands the door to the proverbial closet. In his life, Williams stepped out of that closet, despite an authoritarian father, a domineering mother, and a crazy sister to whom he was a little too close -- a brew seemingly concocted for sitting in the dark. But not for Williams. In 1959, actress Diane Barrymore was not only sharing in his indulgences of drinking and drugging, she was dressing him in drag for parties, all the while perversely hoping to become Mrs. Tennessee Williams. It was, according to biographer Donald Spoto, an abusive relationship, the kind Williams was always writing about.
In his plays, too, Williams stepped out into the light -- or at least into some shadowy, shimmering luminescence where the homoerotic meets the hallucinogenic, all disguised behind the posturings of macho characters like Stanley Kowalski and femmes fatales like Alma Winemiller.
Part of the thrill of watching any Williams play today is decoding the clues to his tormented life and sexual yearnings. Frankly, the thrill is a cheesy one, derived from our enchantment with the famous and their implosions. For the central character in every play by Tennessee Williams is Tennessee Williams -- ever fragile, self-aware and self-absorbed.
We can, of course, always point to Williams' universal themes to balance and rationalize our tawdry fascination with the guy's sex life. But I sincerely doubt that the primary reason for our city's current tetrad of plays by or about Williams is the playwright's savvy use of, say, classical mythology.
WRITER-DIRECTOR JOHN PATRICK LANGS CARVES a portrait -- or at least what he calls a "literary doppelgänger" -- of Williams by following The Glass Menagerie's Tom Wingfield (Williams grew up Tom Lanier) after he bolts from his St. Louis tenement (leaving behind his crippled sister and cloying mother). With his play Desire, Langs sends young writer Tom to 1938 New Orleans, site of the character's sexual and spiritual awakenings.
Eleven actors portray three dozen characters in an epic with settings and furniture that roll on and off the stage as needed. The Gascon Theater is fairly large, as small venues go, and can handily accommodate the activity, with room to spare for suspended wooden blinds dangling at intriguing angles. (The set is by Brian Sidney Bembridge.)
For all the production's evident theatricality, and Langs' snappy staging, the result is actually cinematic -- as often happens with such multiple-locale sagas, and as happens in many of Williams' later plays. Langs' crowd scenes are particularly charged, depicting New Orleans as a nasty, brutish place with white thugs verbally abusing, when they're not actually beating up, black residents.
The ensemble is uniformly accomplished. But if there's a general complaint to be made, it's that Langs' devotion to Williams' milieu is small compensation for his lapses of artistry in both the writing and the direction, despite the production's often hypnotic appeal. For instance, the racist volleys feel generic, as though plucked from a modern TV screen rather than conveying the aberrant, sparking rhythms of the streets. And lines like "If I'm going to meet this challenge, I'll choose my own set of armor" are of little service in the lyricism department.
Upon arriving with portable typewriter in hand, narrator Tom (Mark Doerr, a perfectly awkward innocent) learns that he's been robbed blind and finds himself at the mercy of his Caribbean landlady (the sultry Klea Scott), who is, I'm afraid, a prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold and a fledgling painter to boot. Which, I guess, explains her instant compassion for the young writer with no rent money. (My experience with landlords has differed somewhat, but anyway . . .)
Tom finds work at a local factory, where a buttoned-up spinster clerk (Kiersten Van Horne) is unable to fathom Tom's lack of romantic interest in her, despite her mannerly attempts to seduce him. At the story's sadomasochistic heart, however, is another co-worker, Anthony Burns (Douglas Sutherland), a misfit enduring chronic pain from some undiagnosed malady, and through whom Tom vicariously lives and learns. To relieve his agony, Burns regularly visits a robust African-American masseur (Dathan Hooper) in a clandestine parlor -- a man so persecuted by his white employer that he's inclined to take out his aggressions on pasty white fellows like Burns, who literally gets off on the brutal pummelings. This black-and-white symbiosis is Desire's central metaphor in an unweeded field of them.
Langs likes it so much, he gives us the massage scene three times. True, it's a pristinely choreographed episode as accompanied by Michael Manz-Brake's live percussion. But Tom's narration that, with each massage, "the violence increased" does little to mitigate the redundancy. It's a bit like having the Gentleman Caller break the horn of Laura's unicorn three different times, with ever-increasing violence, just because it's such a good scene.
WILLIAMS' 1975 THE TWO-CHARACTER PLAY IS A somewhat esoteric work, refined several times from an earlier play called Out Cry. Gleason Bauer's staging for Zoo District is quite marvelous, but the play is as impossible to like as it is to dismiss, opening as it does a window into the harrowing events of Williams' past, his frailties of character, his artistic failings and his fears of the above. Somehow, Williams manages all this with humor that careens between self-deprecation and belligerence, and that misfires at almost every turn. For this reason, the play is both a catastrophe and a revelation.
A pair of circumstances inform it: First, there's Williams' profound affection for his sister, Rose, lobotomized in 1937. (If you ever wondered, watching The Glass Menagerie, at the source of Tom's guilt over abandoning his sister, Laura, this is it.) There's also the score of years, bereft of artistic triumphs, that passed between the writing of this play and 1955, the year of Williams' second Pulitzer Prize. The playwright carried the psychic burden of early success to the grave.
The play concerns a brother and a sister, Felice and Clare (Tamar Fortgang and Kevin Dulude). Both are also "actors," trapped on a living-room set midplay, in a pathetic touring performance -- which is also the story of their lives -- in the middle of nowhere. They refer to an audience that is walking out on them and to a talent agent who seems to have lost interest in them, as they attempt to place calls from a pay phone that appears to be as disconnected from the world as they are.
The siblings' performance contains no action to speak of; rather, it offers a relationship consisting of memories and jokes and games, of dressing up and smoking, posing and blowing soap bubbles through a window and out into a garden of sunflowers. It also has no ending -- a point both the characters and Williams seem quite proud of, for its metaphorical significance. By the time this issue arises, however, it doesn't really matter whether their performance has an ending or not.
Dressed as a slightly frumpy ballerina, Fortgang brings a commanding authority to her performance as the witty diva Clare, while Dulude's effete Felice is perhaps a different side of the same character. Barry Wyatt's set turns the entire theater into, yes, a theater, a cluttered environmental collage of gothic props and paintings. All the world's a stage as the Bard and Williams and Luigi Pirandello converge -- or, to quote Tom in The Glass Menagerie, "Truth is the pleasant disguise of illusion."
DESIRE | By JOHN PATRICK LANGS | Presented by GOLDEN MEAN PRODUCTIONS at the GASCON CENTER THEATER, 8737 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Through August 8
THE TWO-CHARACTER PLAY | By TENNESSEE WILLIAMS | Presented by ZOO DISTRICT at ARTSHARE, 801 E. Fourth Place, downtown | Through August 14
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