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Theatre in Review: In Masks Outrageous and Austere (Culture Project)

Most of the characters who populate the cast of Tennessee Williams' In Masks Outrageous and Austere don't know where they are, geographically, morally, or psychologically. In a way, this is appropriate, because David Schweizer, who directed this bizarre bulletin from a great playwright at the end of his rope, writes in his program notes, "this brilliant, exhausted, drug-addled writer really set his plays INSIDE HIS HEAD [the caps are his] at the time he was pounding his typewriter keys."

I don't doubt this assertion, but be warned: Based on the evidence of this play, which occupied Williams on and off during the last years of his life, the inside of the author's head was a mighty strange place, shrouded in fog, and lacking any reliable signage. The longer you spend inside this thicket of tangled plot lines, freakish characters, and overripe language, the more likely you are to feel lost yourself. Williams' finished works from this period can be pretty hard to figure out; this piece, with its murky provenance, is thoroughly baffling. (It apparently exists in several drafts, which bear little resemblance to one another, and the final production script has been touched by many editorial hands, including those of Gore Vidal and Peter Bogdanovich as well as Schweizer and his dramaturg Joe E. Jeffreys.)

The play focuses on Clarissa "Babe" Foxworth, an aging heiress whose family money comes from Kudzu Chem, a sinister conglomerate. Babe is married to Billy Foxworth, a bisexual poet half her age, who is sleeping with his secretary, Jerry. (Much is made of the fact that Jerry is a Harvard undergraduate, which, as it happens, might not be true.) All three turn up at a beach house of unknown location, unaware of how they got there; any attempt at discovering it is met with evasions or outright hostility. They are surrounded by a trio of homosexual security men, all named Gideon, who wander the area wearing sunglasses and earpieces. Showing up from time to time is Mrs. Gorse-Bracken; dressed in a Balenciaga gown, she roams the beach trying to keep tabs on her mentally-retarded teenage son, Playboy, who hangs out at the local lighthouse, trading sexual favors for bags of gumdrops. Playboy's father is a giant who speaks only in grunts, which are translated by the dwarf who accompanies him.

Still with me? Hang on; every time you think the story is headed somewhere specific, it trails off, possibly to preserve the aura of paranoia that hangs over the action like a storm cloud. We never learn much of anything about Kudzu Chem or why or how Babe and her companions have been made prisoners in this undisclosed location. Billy arrives from a clinic, although Babe is skeptical about any alleged illness. We learn that Babe and Billy's marriage is unconsummated and therefore open to annulment -- news that would apparently please Babe's father, who opposed the match -- but that's as far as it goes. An unfinished letter, from a murdered Kudzu Chem official, is delivered, containing the news that that Babe's father is in the hospital, but nothing much comes of it. Because of her scandalous behavior -- she may have been a lesbian at one time -- Babe is estranged from her daughter, a point that seems to matter until it is forgotten. There's much ado about Billy's plan to eliminate the tent worms -- caterpillars that gum up trees and shrubs with their thick webs -- leading to a fire that burns out of control, but, again, this narrative strand leads nowhere.

And then there's the dialogue, which consists of long, loopy arias, most of them sounding like entries in a "write like Tennessee Williams" competition. In a moment of martini-fueled candor, Babe tells Jerry, "Explicit truth is my nature! Truth calls for savagery sometimes, and in the end is kinder. I! PURCHASED! MY HUSBAND! That's the awful truth of it!" Mrs. Gorse-Bracken, by way of making conversation, says, "When did you last lift up your heart to God and cry out your repentance of the lusts, the cupidities, the vile and viciously self-centered aspects of your life-style, which you thought privileged by your vast wealth?" When Mrs. Gorse-Bracken insists that "Playboy is essential to my existence," Babe replies, "A fixation? Latent incest on top of everything else? My God, if this were theatre, I'd think it a metaphor for the idiocy of existence." The most interesting thing about the dialogue is that its revelations -- of homosexuality, kept spouses, and illicit sexual activity -- are delivered with breathless excitement, as if author was unaware that, by the early '80s, such things no longer shocked audiences -- especially those familiar with the plays of Tennessee Williams.

There's plenty more. I'll skip over the bloodbath finale, which leaves several principals in a heap on the stage, or the last-minute suggestion that the entire play is some kind of Pirandellian trick on the characters or the audience or both. Suffice it to say that Shirley Knight, as Babe, negotiates a role that would break the back of many a younger actress; if she seems overly fidgety and fussy during the first act, it's awfully hard to blame her, and she calms down a bit after the intermission. (Early reviews indicated that she wasn't on top of her lines, but a perusal of the script reveals that Babe's speeches are written in stream-of-consciousness fashion, full of sentence fragments and dead ends. It may well be that Knight -- who seemed totally in control at the performance I attended -- was merely acting too well.) Given the narrow confines of their roles -- especially their motivations, which shift from moment to moment Robert Beitzel (Billy) and Sam Underwood (Jerry) are as good as anyone has any right to expect. If you're looking for someone to play a bizarrely mannered woman of mystery, Alison Fraser is the one to call, and she applies her full repertory of great-lady vocal tricks to the role of Mrs. Gorse-Bracken. Conor Buckley is thoroughly convincing as the moronic, gumdrop-loving Playboy.

Seizing on the play's crazed atmosphere of suspicion and fear, Schweizer has gotten a remarkable and highly original production design from his creative team. James Noone's set surrounds the auditorium with low-res video panels, which are fronted by highly reflective, albeit transparent, plastic walls. The panels frequently show images of the sky and beach, and of the blaze set off by Billy. They also allow Buck Henry and Austin Pendleton to make cameo appearances -- Henry as that Kudzu Chem exec and Pendleton as Babe's physician, both of whom are murdered. The lighting, by Alexander V. Nichols, makes unorthodox use of LED strips in overhead positions; the slightly artificial illumination created by them perfectly suits the play. Gabriel Berry's costumes -- including some flowery muumuus for Babe, Mrs. Gorse-Bracken's haute couture outfit (complete with a hat and veil), and the Gideons' narrowly cut suits -- are fully in synch with the play's oddball needs. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design provides a fairly continual surround of sound effects and music, all designed to help create a mounting atmosphere of dread.

It appears that everyone involved has strained every nerve to make something out of In Masks Outrageous and Austere -- the title comes from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop -- but it is a Sisyphean task. Usually, when given the chance to see an obscure work by a great playwright, I am grateful for the opportunity. This time, however, I have to wonder if any good is being served by digging up this unfinished, opaque piece. Someone or other is always trying to prove that Williams' later works -- basically, everything after The Night of the Iguana -- contain, at the very least, flashes of brilliance. The corollary to this notion is the assertion that the plays were unjustly dismissed by a cadre of ax-grinding critics who wanted Williams to repeat his earlier successes. In the last couple of years, however I've sat through Out Cry, Small Craft Warnings, Vieux Carré, and The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, and I think it's fair to say that this is utter nonsense. Rambling, morose, and lacking in any kind of dramatic construction, they are the works of an artist so crippled by his addictions and psychological demons that he could no longer communicate with an audience. In Masks Outrageous and Austere is valuable only as a barometer of how far a great man had fallen.--David Barbour

(20 April 2012)

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