05 March 2011

"Uninhabitable Country: 'Five by Tenn'"

[Tennessee Williams’s 100th birthday will be this 26 March, and among the many observances, Pace University Drama will present Three From Tennessee at La MaMa E.T.C., 4-6 March. One of the one-acts in on the bill is And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens, “the first known Tennessee Williams play set in the gay world,” which was also in the repertoire seven years ago when I reviewed the opening production of the Kennedy Center’s season-long celebration of Williams, “Tennessee Williams Explored” (April-July 2004). Five by Tenn was produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company; the rest of “Tennessee Williams Explored,” which included productions of A Streetcar Named Desire (8-31 May), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (12 June-4 July), The Glass Menagerie (17 July-8 August), and A Distant Country Called Youth, a one-man performance based on some of Williams’s early letters (11-13 June), was a production of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. (By coincidence, the letters in Distant Country are drawn from The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, a publication on which I assisted the editors.) Parallel to these events, but not formally part of “Tennessee Williams Explored,” the Washington National Opera presented the East Coast premiere of André Previn and Philip Littell’s opera adaptation of Streetcar (15 May-2 June). (The Arena Stage also produced Orpheus Descending at the Kreeger Theatre from 14 May through 27 June independently of the Kennedy Center celebration.) My review, solicited by Philip C. Kolin, review editor of the Tennessee Williams Annual Review (Robert Bray, editor), appeared in the 2004 issue (no. 7) of TWAR, on line at http://www.tennesseewilliamsstudies.org/archives/2004/r1kramer.htm. I’m republishing it below, with some emendations from another account, to coincide with Pace Drama’s presentation at La MaMa, a fitting venue since, as David Crespy, author of Off-Off-Broadway Explosion, told me “Williams was very, very important to the off-off-Broadway scene . . . . In many ways, I think he was the inspiration for off-off-Broadway.” La MaMa’s first production in 1962 was an adaptation of Williams’s short story “One Arm.”

[The other plays in the Pace Drama presentation are The Remarkable Rooming-house of Mme. Le Monde and The Pink Bedroom. Curious readers can find an essay, “The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde:Tennessee Williams's Little Shop of Comic Horrors” by Philip C. Kolin, a Williams authority, on line at http://www.tennesseewilliamsstudies.org/archives/2001/3kolin.htm, the same publication that ran my review three years later.]

* * * *

Five by Tenn
An evening of one-act plays by Tennessee Williams (with additional material compiled by Nicholas Moschovakis and David Roessel); directed by Michael Kahn; sets by Andrew Jackness; lighting by Howell Binkley; costumes by Catherine Zuber; sound by Martin Desjardins; music composed by Adam Wernick. Produced by The Shakespeare Theatre, Washington, D.C., Michael Kahn, artistic director. Presented as part of “Tennessee Williams Explored” at the Terrace Theatre, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., Michael M. Kaiser, president.

WITH: Edward Boroevich, Kathleen Chalfant, Joshua Drew, Cameron Folmar, John Joseph Gallagher, Hunter Gilmore, Jeremy Lawrence, Brian McMonagle, Janet Patton, Thomas Jay Ryan, Carrie Specksgoor, Joan van Ark, Myk Watford

For the opening production of “Tennessee Williams Explored,” the Kennedy Center’s celebration of the man director Michael Kahn calls “the great writer in American literature,” Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre presented Five by Tenn, a selection of Williams one-acts (21 April-9 May 2004, Terrace Theater). Four of the five plays had never been previously staged and three have not been published; three—These Are the Stairs You Got to Watch, Escape, And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens . . .—were recently rediscovered by Nicholas Moschovakis and David Roessel in archives at UCLA and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. Williams had left the fourth “new” play, The Municipal Abattoir, at the home of Lee Hoiby, composer of 1971’s Summer and Smoke opera, who sent it to Kahn. The last play on the bill, I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow, has been staged several times, including on PBS (NET at the time) as part of a double Williams bill called Dragon Country (1970) and once, also directed by Kahn, for the Acting Company’s Ten From Tennessee (1986).

Kahn staged the plays more or less in order of composition, stitching them together with an avatar of Williams called The Writer (Jeremy Lawrence) who introduced the plays (and covered the scene changes) with patter drawn from Williams’s Memoirs and stage directions from the scripts. Even though several of the plays are very short, five together make a full evening—three hours—and this device only attenuated it without really adding anything. (At his first appearance, for instance, The Writer said, “A play only exists on a stage”—something of a truism.) Not that Lawrence did a bad job—he has his own one-man Williams performance—though he seemed overly effeminate, as if he were channeling Truman Capote more than Williams. Perhaps Kahn needed a connective device because the plays’ styles and themes are so different; I just wish he had thought of something simpler—and quicker.

Many of Williams’s recurrent focuses are apparent in the one-acts—“I have only one major theme for all my work,” wrote Williams to Audrey Wood, “which is the destructive impact of society on the sensitive, non-conformist individual”—but each deals with one or two topics in its own style—some quite unexpected. They do not so much tessellate as demonstrate the span of Williams’s theatrical interest and exploration over time. This is not to say that all are equally strong stage dramas. The slightest—and, perhaps, sweetest—is These Are the Stairs You Got to Watch (ca. 1941), set in a seedy, decaying New Orleans movie theater. Williams, of course, loved movies—he and his sister went often when he was little; it was obviously an escape, but he absorbed film techniques and they show up in all his plays in various ways. He also worked briefly for MGM, where he first started Glass Menagerie as a screenplay called The Gentleman Caller. (When the play was a huge success, MGM tried to sue Williams on the grounds that, as a studio employee when he began the script, they had an ownership claim to the property. The stalwart Audrey Wood fended off the suit in one of her many services to Williams during the years she represented him.) One of his early bread-and-butter jobs in New York was movie usher and in this tale of loss of innocence, a teenaged usher (Hunter Gilmore), newly hired, is charged with keeping stealthy patrons from sneaking up to the closed balcony for illicit purposes. We hear snippets of a Hollywood romance screening in the auditorium whenever the door is opened, and while the young usher and his older colleague (Thomas Jay Ryan) are drawn to it, a young woman (Carrie Specksgoor) manages to sneak up the stairs. When the manager (John Joseph Gallagher) detects the intrusion, the unpleasant, mean-spirited (and possibly dirty old) man berates the ushers. The older one, who is leaving for an adult job, declares that he “came into this place clean” but is “going out dirty” and, peeling off his uniform, ascends the stairs himself. Police retrieve him, but the first girl’s friend (Janet Patton) entices the teen up to the balcony. For Williams, the movies and their whole milieu—the films, the stars, the theaters, the employees—are both a source of romance, intrigue, fantasy, and delight—and of danger, experience, and rebellion. (I am reminded that Nancy Tischler's '61 book about Williams, the first real study of his work, was called Rebellious Puritan because Williams always used to say that his family background encompassed both the Puritan spirit—he was descended from a saint—and that of the Cavalier. This dual imagery often figures in his symbolism. All this is way too heavy for Stairs, of course, but nonetheless . . . .) However sweet, Stairs is hardly revelatory and the cast, though perfectly credible, are never required to take the characters beyond their one-dimensional foundations.

Escape (1930’s) is unmistakably a Glass Menagerie precursor in that it prefigures the relationship between Tom and Amanda. Suggesting that this is more than a coincidental treatment of the same theme is the fact that the ‘escape’ of the title refers, along with the sense of getting away, to the fire escape outside the family’s city apartment. We remember that Tom is discovered on the fire escape of the Wingfield apartment when Menagerie opens and that fire escapes figure symbolically in that play. In Escape, the son, Donald Fenway, wonders if anyone understands that some people yearn to “escape from anything except fire.” Mrs. Fenway, played with adamant lassitude by a virtually unrecognizable Joan van Ark, is fluttery and obsessive about her son’s behavior and future, but she has some reason to be: Donald is brooding and morose, clearly suffocating and depressed. The mother and son (Cameron Folmar) are vacationing in a shore cottage—the musician father and husband is playing the summer concert season—and Donald gazes ceaselessly out the large windows of the sun porch towards the lake. (There is almost no furniture on this glassed-in porch: just Mrs. Fenway’s wicker chaise, a small table upstage, and a pair of wicker chairs with a table between them; the most prominent element of Andrew Jackness’s set is the wing-to-wing expanse of window across the back, looking out at the lake.) I do not know if it was obvious to everyone that suicide is on Donald’s mind from the very beginning, or if it was only because I was reminded that Williams’s literary hero Hart Crane drowned himself in an act with which Williams was preoccupied. (He even left instructions, which were ignored, that his body should be buried at sea near where Crane is believed to have drowned. The title Summer and Smoke is a line from a Crane poem.) Donald also obsesses about time: as Mrs. Fenway says, “Time is one thing that nobody ever gets away from.” (The original title of the one-act version of Sweet Bird was The Enemy: Time, an expression of Williams's feeling about the passage of time and the inevitable decay that comes with age.) While Mrs. Fenway reclines in her chaise as if she is unable to get up, Donald goes out to swim. When he does not return to shore—the maid watches out the window, reporting to Mrs. Fenway—we understand that he has swum out to his death. Escape, for all its obviousness as an apprentice effort, has the hallmarks of the plays from Williams’s most successful period and was well played by the trio (which included Kathleen Chalfant as an Irish maid so ancient she can barely cross the porch).

The only two-parter on the bill, And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens . . . (1960’s) is also Williams’s only play to feature an actual drag queen. Candy Delaney (the extraordinarily versatile Folmar again) is almost 35 and her “husband” has just left her. The décor of Candy’s French Quarter apartment is faux-Japanese and she has a penchant for both kimonos and 1940’s Hollywood attire in the mode of Lauren Bacall or Katherine Hepburn (delightfully designed by Catherine Zuber). In her loneliness and desperation—she declares that she has a “damaged heart”—she picks up rough straight men, and this time she has brought home Karl, a merchant sailor, and invites him to live with her. Over the weeks of their relationship, Karl (Myk Watford) becomes increasingly violent, finally beating Candy ferociously. The young gay couple upstairs finds her, and while the play closes on the trio together on Candy’s couch, they essentially joke about her near-fatal encounter as one rescuer quips, “Now let us sit upon a rumpled bed and tell sad stories of the deaths of queens.” Though Candy may be a take on Alma Winemiller or Blanche DuBois and Karl is surely an avatar of Stanley Kowalski, Williams confronts an aspect of gay life directly here so that Sad Stories, the only Williams play (according to his own declaration) that openly treats gay themes, does not line up directly with anything else he wrote. Of course, the themes of alienation and loneliness—which embrace Karl as well as Candy—are the central focus of Sad Stories as they are of all Williams’s plays and Folmar and Watford, though their relationship is predictable, create characters who are both believable and poignantly sympathetic. It is a mark of both Williams’s writing as well as Kahn’s directing and Watford’s acting that Karl, too, is someone with whom we empathize for, with all his homophobic brutality, he is as lost and needy as Candy.

The similarity of the name Candy Delaney with that of a real-life drag performer whom Williams knew is striking—Candy Darling. (It is further coincidental that Candy Delaney likes to prepare a special drink of absinthe and vodka which she calls a "violet." Violet is the name of the character Candy Darling played in Small Craft Warnings.) The problem occurs because the press materials date Sad Stories as having been composed in the '60s, before Williams did SCW and appeared on stage with Candy Darling. That makes all this quite an amazing coincidence, unless the date of the play is incorrect (which I suspect) or Williams knew Candy Darling years before he wrote—much less performed in—SCW. (Or Williams reworked Sad Stories after he met Candy Darling in SCW in '72.) I wrote to a Williams authority I know to ask if he knew anything bearing on this coincidence, but he didn't know anything for sure—though he suspected that Williams knew Darling earlier.

The most different in the program from Williams’s other known pieces, The Municipal Abattoir (late 1960’s-early 1970’s), the first piece after the intermission, is set in a totalitarian (and apparently Latin American—though that may have been Kahn’s contribution) country with overtones of 1984. The set, representing a city street, consists entirely of an up-stage wall with huge posters of a military officer inscribed with the single word “Viva.” A young man carrying a banner (Folmar) is on his way to a rally and his girlfriend (Specksgoor) pleads with him not to go. It becomes clear that he plans to assassinate the dictator and he sends the girl away. Before he can get on with his task, however, a man approaches to ask directions to the municipal abattoir. The boy pretends not to understand, suspecting an agent provocateur is trying to entrap him. It soon becomes evident, however, that the man (Ryan) is just a hapless clerk and he explains that he must report to the municipal abattoir: If you are late, he explains, it goes harder on you. Though no one spells it out, we understand that the municipal abattoir is the regime’s killing ground for political undesirables. (Here an element of an old Star Trek episode comes to mind: “A Taste of Armageddon” from 1967.) The boy tries to convince the man to resist his own death sentence, but the clerk, played with deadpan simplemindedness, has been so conditioned that he sees only that he must comply. Finally, the boy seems to persuade the clerk to take the banner and gun and perform the boy’s act of defiance before reporting to the municipal abattoir. After the boy leaves, however, the old man turns and asks another, unseen passerby for directions to the municipal abattoir—and the play ends. There is nothing subtle in Abattoir, but it is interesting that it so unmistakably takes as its models Absurdists like Eugène Ionesco—or maybe Vaclav Havel, just becoming known in the mid-1960s—and non-realistic polemicists like Brecht. There are no Brechtian devices on display, but his stamp seems all over the little play. If Sad Stories is Williams’s only openly gay play, Abattoir may be his most openly political one. (The Writer introduced this play by insisting, “Artist is synonymous with revolutionary.”)

The last play on the bill was I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow (first published in 1966), which, aside from the television airing, premiered on stage at the 1971 Maine Theater Arts Festival in Bar Harbor. (It has had several other stagings over the years—I saw it Off-Off-Broadway in 1975 and it has haunted me ever since—including, as noted, Kahn’s Acting Company production.) It is also the most substantial piece of theater in the program, denser and more thoughtful, less obvious and superficial. Also bearing the influence of the Absurdists, mostly Ionesco and, to my ear, Pinter (with undertones of Japanese Noh in Williams’s construction of the dialogue), Tomorrow deals with fear, aging, pain, and failure. A middle-aged woman and man (Chalfant and Ryan as simply One and Two, respectively) are in the living room of her home—she has let him in because he has no place else to go—where they have an elliptical conversation about fear and death. He is a teacher but has not met his classes in days because he can no longer talk to anyone but her. He lives in a seedy hotel—she calls it a “mortuary of a hotel”—where derelict women haunt the lobby; she will not go out—or allow anyone in except him. Both One and Two seldom complete a sentence, but there is a visceral connection between them that is not verbally expressed. (The Pinteresque aspects of Tomorrow reside in the silences at the ends of the uncompleted sentences and the ambiguous nature of the pair’s relationship and the circumstances of the “backstory.”) Even the setting is minimal: a fragmentary room—there are no walls in Jackness’s set—with a sofa and end table at one side, a card table and two chairs in the center, and a staircase at the left. There is another chair on the landing midway up the staircase for the woman has trouble—she is in unspecified pain but the condition is also psychological and emotional—going all the way up the stairs. We glean the theme of the play from bits of the dialogue (if you can really call it that) as the pair are reduced to writing down their thoughts: “I love you and I am afraid,” writes Two, and One offers, “Time . . . is sweeping us out of the way.” Kahn called Tomorrow a masterpiece; I do not know about that, but it is a gem. The “facts” of the story are mysterious (à la Pinter), but the struggle of the two is palpable even if we cannot describe what they are going through. Like the connection between One and Two, the connection between them and us is visceral. (An acting teacher of mine explained that one particular technique makes the audience sense that the character is “up to something” even if they do not know what that is. Tomorrow is like that—it is up to something, even if we cannot articulate it.) The acting was superb here—given especially that Chalfant and Ryan had to develop an intuitive connection to each other (or superlative technical mastery) much like the characters’. That's also Pinteresque, I think.

Taken together, the five plays are a fascinating tour of Williams terrain. In Tomorrow, One describes not only the world of that play but the universe of Five by Tenn: it is a “country of pain, . . . an uninhabitable country which is inhabited, though,” by people who are entirely alone.

[Not all of the previously unproduced plays are still unpublished. And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens . . . appears in Political Stages: Plays That Shaped a Century (edited by Emily Mann and David Roessel; Applause Theatre Books, 2002). Kahn also presented a reading of the play (along with Escape) at the Shakespeare Theatre as part of its ReDiscovery Series on 10 December 2001. Years later, These Are The Stairs You Got to Watch, Escape, And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens, and The Municipal Abattoir were published in Mister Paradise and Other One-Act Plays (edited by Nicholas Moschovakis and David Roessel; New Directions, 2005). (I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow, the only other play in the program to have been published before Five by Tenn, is available in Dragon Country [New Directions, 1970]. Of the Pace Drama bill, The Pink Bedroom is in Mr. Paradise and The Remarkable Rooming-house appears in The Traveling Companion and Other Plays [edited by Annette J. Saddik; New Directions, 2008].)

[By coincidence, Food For Thought presented Williams's Pinteresque I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow on 24 February at the Paley Center for the Media with a cast of Penny Fuller and Tony Roberts as One and Two.

[The one-acts presented by the Kennedy Center under the title Five by Tenn were revived by the Manhattan Theatre Club that fall with a slightly different bill than the one staged in Washington. Two pays were dropped and two different ones substituted: These Are the Stairs You Got to Watch and The Municipal Abattoir weren’t restaged and, in their stead, The Fat Man's Wife and Adam and Eve on a Ferry (both world premières) were added. Also, the play called Escape was presented under a different title, Summer at the Lake (New York première). (Apparently that was Kahn's idea—he thought it was closer to what Williams would have called it.) The dates of the production were 19 October through 19 December 2004; the cast was substantially the same as Washington, with the major exception of Joan van Ark.]

No comments:

Post a Comment