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Theatre in Review: Tennessee Williams 1982 (The Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company/Walkerspace)

Ford Ausion. Photo: Antonis Achilleos.

Tennessee Williams 1982 consists of two one-act plays. In one, the protagonist is a homeless woman, covered in filthy, stinking horse skins, who speaks several animal languages; the second features a crippled young man who gets around the attic to which he is confined by grasping at a series of hooks affixed to the ceiling -- that is, when he isn't being anally raped by the teenage boy who lives downstairs.

Welcome to the final flickering moments in the sunset of a great writer's career; 1982 was the last full year of Williams' life, a time when he had been abandoned by audiences, critics, friends, and lovers. Once a violent young talent who reset the agenda of American drama, he was now, to the world, a played-out, strung-out has-been. Major revivals of his early successes still rolled out with monotonous regularity, but they must have provided the coldest of comfort during the two decades in which one new work after another was dismissed as stilted, derivative, even incoherent. As his biographer, John Lahr, notes, as early as 1962 Williams was expressing his envy of writers such as Beckett, Pinter, and Albee, who were taking the theatre in directions that lay far beyond his vision.

But, despite the critical scorn, the absence of commercial interest, his crippling loneliness, and deadly addiction to liquor and pills, the playwright returned to his typewriter daily, forging ahead, no matter what. (His watchword was "Avanti!") Following what was to be his final Broadway disaster, Clothes for a Summer Hotel, in 1980, Williams announced that he was abandoning the New York theatre forever, but the threat proved hollow; a year later, he was back with a new work, Something Cloudy, Something Clear. And despite everything, the output during this period was staggering. A program note states, "In the years since his death in 1983, there have been forty-four one-acts and thirteen full-length plays by Tennessee Williams published for the first time."

There's no getting around the fact that virtually everything that we have seen of Williams' late output has been pretty distressing. Still, the search continues, and, as the above quote indicates, there is still plenty of material to sift through. As Walter Kerr wrote in 1977, Williams "has already given us such a substantial body of work that there really is no need to continue demanding that he live up to himself, that he produce more, more, more, and all masterpieces. We could take some casuals and just tuck them into the portfolio, gratefully, as small dividends." If they provide pretty small dividends, these two plays that make up Tennessee Williams 1982 nevertheless give any Williams fan plenty to think about. Each piece is a coherent, if bizarre, piece of work; there is little of the chaos that attended the production of his full-length drama In Masks Outrageous and Austere a few seasons ago. At the same time, each piece is written in a distinct, rather un-Williams-like style. They suggest that he had lost faith in his own voice and was casting about for a new one -- and, perhaps, a way to stay relevant. The title of the first piece, A Recluse and His Guest, sounds like classic Williams but it is a folk fable: "The time of the play is remote and the town in which it is set is far northern," the script says. (The setting seems to be Middle Europe or perhaps Scandinavia.)

Nevrika, she of the horse skins, wanders into a village where she is shunned by the inhabitants when not being treated as a prostitute. She is a refugee from "the ship of fools," and the only local who wants to have anything to do with her forces himself on her, then says, "Oh, the way to the whorehouse, to the whorehouse you're headed! You'll find no stick of it standing, it's been burned to the ground and the whores beaten and run out to the Midnight Forest, naked and screaming, last summer. Oh, and one, Black Roxan -- swung! Swung over the harbor! Naked, swung 'til she rotted!"

Nevrika ends up moving in with Ott, the recluse, who is interested in her ability to speak to animals, including the hen she brings with her. He lives in fear of the world: When she tries to open up his house, he cries out, "I'll have no boards off windows in this town full of thieves!" She wears down his resistance, and even gets him to take a bath upstage, an event recorded on video and broadcast to the many televisions on Justin West's set, an attic-like collection of objects, including a startling number of stuffed animals. A kind of closeness springs up between Nevrika and Ott, and she brings him to a local festival. On the way home, he is hit in the head by a tile, and returns in terror to his solitude. His relationship with Nevrika turns abusive and he informs her that she must set herself "on a piece of ice that is going out to sea." When she challenges this, he replies, "A piece of ice is where your travels were leading you to, whether you knew it or not."

The theme of an attempt at intimacy that triggers a fearful and violent reaction is a Williams evergreen, as is the concept of the lone wanderer who endures in the face of devastating rejection and loss. But the odd attempts at local color and the narrative's determinedly fable-like quality seem forced, as if the playwright suddenly wanted to be Sholem Aleichem. Neither Ott nor Nevrika have anything to hold an audience's interest, and Williams can't find a satisfying ending.

If A Recluse and His Guest is about love, The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme Le Monde is about sex; if the former is marked by a deliberately archaic quality, the latter shows Williams avidly, almost desperately, trying to get into the swing of things, taking advantage of the anything-goes standards of the contemporary stage. The rooming house, which is more like a madhouse, is presided over by the title character, here costumed by Angela Wendt in a black tutu, black boots, rubber bustier, and strawberry fright wig. As the play opens, Mint, a young man who is crippled from the waist down, is being raped by one of Mme Le Monde's boys; on the video screens we see the lady herself enjoying the attentions of a man in a hot pink suit. He is Hall, a former schoolmate of Mint's who has come for a visit. Actually, torture is more like it; Mint, who hasn't eaten in days, tries to cross the stage, using the hooks hanging from the ceiling, in an attempt to reach Hall before he eats all the biscuits that have been set out for tea.

With its London setting, free-for-all sexual activity, and epigrammatic dialogue, Mme Le Monde would seem to be Williams' Joe Orton play. Recalling their school, "Scrotum-on-Swansea," Hall tells Mint, "You were a notorious fag and bed-wetter, but reasonably mobile. Now you get about only by swinging from hook to hook, like that historical ape-man swinging from branch to branch in the jungle." Hall has a lengthy aria describing his adventures with a prostitute, including a graphic depiction of oral sex. ("She was a deep-throater, took it all in.") He also talks incessantly about his job, selling shares of Amalgamated, Inc. Eventually Mme Le Monde returns, laying waste to the men, but no matter; as she says, "My fecundity is equal to the queen bee's. I am constantly replacing drones such as that one."

For all its considerable coarseness, its determined attempts to be as sexually graphic as possible, Mme Le Monde wouldn't have been all that taboo-breaking even in 1982, and Williams' writing lacks the wit and ferocious discipline that an Orton would have brought to the situation. It's meant to be a shocker, but it succeeds only in being tasteless.

Still, Tennessee Williams 1982 is required viewing for Williams scholars and fans, who will leap at the chance to experience these obscure pieces. It's a lucky thing that these scripts have fallen to the talented Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company. The director, Cosmin Chivu, honors the tone of each piece and his cast does surprisingly well under the circumstances. Kate Skinner pulls off an impressive double act as that saintly figure of endurance, Nevrika, and the murderous, possibly psychotic doxy, Mme Le Monde. Ford Austin captures the fear that nips at Ott's consciousness as well as his craving for human contact. Beau Allen is impressive as the unctuous villager who has his way with Nevrika before sending her on her way to Ott's house. Patrick Darwin Williams handles Hall's torturous monologue about Rosie, the whore, with considerable energy and élan. Jade Ziane is nothing less than remarkable as Mint, who struggles to hold on to his company manners while enduring almost impossible physical challenges.

West's single set works well for both plays, as does John Eckert's lighting, which creates radically different atmospheres. Eckert's video design is nicely integrated into the action. In addition to Mme Le Monde's hard-to-forget ensemble, Wendt cleverly tweaks contemporary winter wear to create a period look for A Recluse. There is no sound designer, but Paul Brantley provided distinctive original music, played on stage by himself, using a cello and electric guitar.

Most of all, Tennessee Williams 1982 provides a powerful insight into a writer bent on pursuing his muse in the face of frailty, addiction, and the erosions of time. If the artistry was diminished, the bravery behind it remained constant. -- David Barbour


(22 February 2016)

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