Back in 1986, the Acting Company commissioned seven diverse playwrights to compose adaptations of short stories by Anton Chekhov. Produced at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in April and May that year, some of the seven plays in Orchards hoved closely to their sources, others took a more liberal perspective, and one or two ignored their Chekhovian origin entirely. (In 1997/98, the Acting Company used the same strategy—commissioning a diverse team of eminent playwrights—to create an evening of plays and music inspired by Shakespeare’s sonnets entitled Love’s Fire.) Well, now the same company has turned to Tennessee Williams (1911-83), another great playwright and short story-writer, in the same vein. Presented as the second entry in the 2015-16 5A Season at the 59E59 Theaters, Desire comprises six short plays adapted by six very different authors from Williams stories published between 1939 and 1980.
59E59’s 5A Season, its mainstage presentation, encompasses five full productions in Theater A (hence the name) on the first floor of the East 59th Street home. Desire, which runs from 2 September to 10 October and opened to the press on 10 September, is considered a world première even though it was workshopped over four days in July at Vassar College’s Powerhouse Theater in Poughkeepsie, New York, home of New York Stage and Film. Diana, my frequent theater companion—this show was actually her idea, and it turned out to be a mighty good one—saw the 8 p.m. performance on Friday, 18 September. (My report on “Summer Shorts 2015, Series A,” posted on 12 August, includes a brief background on the 59E59 Theaters.)
Founded in 1972 by producer/director/actor John Houseman, who was the first director of Juilliard’s Drama Division (founded in 1968), and Margot Harley with members of the program’s first graduating class, the Acting Company promotes theater by touring across the U.S. with a repertory of classics and new works performed by young actors and teaching artists. It concentrates on communities where live performance and theater arts education are limited. The company has now expanded beyond Juilliard graduates, auditioning actors from all over the country. Each year, the Acting Company performs in over 40 cities to 70,000 theatergoers and provides arts education to more than 30,000 students. According to its own website, the company has presented 141 productions of classic, contemporary, and new plays to over three million spectators in 48 states and ten foreign countries.
The Acting Company has received critical acclaim nationally. In 2003, it was awarded a TONY for Excellence in Theater and the company has won many other awards such as Obies, AUDELCOS (to honor excellence in New York African American Theatre) and the Los Angeles Critics Circle Award. The company has a record of fostering new works for the stage based on classic literature long before Desire, including Love’s Fire; The Robber Bridegroom by Alfred Uhry (1975, based on a 1942 novel by Eurdora Welty); Orchards; and Rebecca Gilman’s 2005 adaptation of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) by Carson McCullers (coincidentally, a close friend of Tennessee Williams). Some of the illustrious alumni of the Acting Company include Dennis Boutsikaris, Frances Conroy, Keith David, Dann Florek, Harriet Harris, Kevin Kline, Hamish Linklater, Patti LuPone, Jesse L. Martin, Randle Mell, Andrew Prosky, David Schramm, David Ogden Stiers, Lorraine Toussaint, Rainn Wilson, and Jeffrey Wright.
(Acting Company alums Megan Bartle, Liv Rooth, John Skelley, Derek Smith, and Yaegel T. Welch appear in Desire. A side note about Smith: his was the only cast name I recognized before reading the program; I’d seen Juliet Brett and Yaegel T. Welch as Bonnie in A. R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer and Jonathan in Athol Fugard’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, respectively—see my reports on 28 June and 3 July—but I didn’t know that until I read their bios. As it happens, I saw Smith, who’s now 55, as Romeo at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre in 1986, former Acting Company director Michael Kahn’s first production as artistic director of STC.)
Subtitled An Evening of Plays Based on Six Stories by Tennessee Williams, Desire has a repertory cast of nine directed by Michael Wilson (Horton Foote’s The Orphans Home Cycle at the Signature Theatre Company, 2009-10—see my report on 25 and 28 February 2010; Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful on Broadway with Cecily Tyson, 2013) on a unit set. The scenic and projection design is by Jeff Cowie, the costume design by David C. Woolard, the lighting design by Russell H. Champa, and the original music and sound design by John Gromada. The show runs two-and-a-half hours with one intermission between the third and fourth plays. Many of Williams’s stories eventually became the bases of several of his full-length plays, including some of his best-known works: “The Yellow Bird” (published in 1967) became Summer and Smoke (1948) and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (1964); “One Arm” (1967), Camino Real (1953); “Three Players of a Summer Game” (1960), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955); “The Night of the Iguana” (1967), the play of the same title (1961); and “Man Bring This Up Road” (1994), The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (1963). In Desire, John Guare’s You Lied To Me About Centralia was adapted from “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” (1948), which Williams used as the foundation of The Glass Menagerie (1944), his first commercial success. (Short story publication dates are often later than Williams’s composition of the piece. Some stories had been unpublished, others appeared in magazines before being collected into book anthologies.)
The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin (short story published in 1951) by Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, 1978, Pulitzer Prize; The Miss Firecracker Contest, 1979) is the evening’s most clearly autobiographical tale and Henley kept to the original storyline and setting. (Williams was well-known for recycling his biography in his writing. When this story appeared in print, Williams’s father told his son’s agent, “Tell Tom to keep my family out of his stories.”) It takes place in the 1920s in a small Mississippi town, (probably the Delta town of Clarksdale, where Williams; his older sister, Rose; and their mother, Miss Edwina, lived in that era with Williams’s grandfather, the Rev. Walter Dakin, and grandmother, Rosina (Rose) Otte Dakin, who was called Grand). I’d bet the incidents recounted in Resemblance were actual events in the Williams family when the nascent writer was a child. (In fact, Lyle Leverich describes similar incidents in his 1995 biography, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams.) Tom (Mickey Theis), obviously named for Thomas Lanier Williams III, the writer’s birth name, and his older sister and only real friend, Roe (Juliet Brett), recalling Williams’s own beloved sister, are also playmates, making up all kinds of esoteric games like the Stations of the Cross. But Roe is preoccupied with her piano lessons with Miss Alley (Kristen Adele) and the recital her teacher has organized for her and this irks Tom. (Piano and additional music for Resemblance are by Jana Mainelli.) Miss Alley has also arranged for young, handsome Richard Miles (Brian Cross), her prize pupil who’s come back for a visit, to partner with Roe on the violin. This annoys Tom, but it also unnerves Roe, for the young girl is growing up and Tom feels she’s leaving him behind. During one of their games, Roe screams and Tom sees that there’s blood running down her leg—though he doesn’t understand what it means—and Roe runs off in fright, ordering her little brother not to follow her. At the same time, Roe is beginning to act erratically and finds she’s no longer able to play her music, developments that confound her mother (Megan Bartle) and grandmother (Liv Rooth). (The play doesn’t specify, but theatergoers familiar with Williams’s history will know that Rose suffered from schizophrenia starting in her teens, ultimately being institutionalized for the rest of her life after a lobotomy in 1943—eight years before Williams published the story.) The title comes from Tom’s perception of Richard’s ubiquitous violin case, which Roe always asks to carry to rehearsal for him. Tom says that the case looks like a coffin . . . for a baby or a doll. It’s an eerie note to an already bittersweet story.
Tent Worms (1980) by Elizabeth Egloff (The Swan, 1990; and Peter Pan and Wendy, 1997; Ether Dome, 2011) is set in the present (updated from Williams’s original, written in 1945) on the deck of a house on Cape Cod, Massachusetts (where Williams spent a lot of time over the years, including the summer of 1946 when he shared a cottage on Nantucket Island, south of the Cape in Nantucket Sound, with Carson McCullers while she dramatized her novel The Member of the Wedding and he worked on Summer and Smoke). Billy (Derek Smith) and his wife, Clara (Rooth), are spending the summer away from the turmoil of the city at their vacation cottage. Billy is a writer and he usually uses the freedom to work out on the deck while Clara relaxes. (They’ve never made friends of any of their neighbors.) The marriage now seems strained and Billy has become preoccupied with ridding the property of the tent worms that have been building their webs in the cottage’s trees. When the play starts, Billy’s up in one of the trees with a leaf-blower, making a racket while trying to wipe out the parasites. He’s nearly—well, not really “nearly”—obsessed with this, and Clara has taken up drinking as a defense. Clearly, there’s something more going on, and a phone call from Billy’s doctor provides some answers. We only hear Clara’s frantic side of the conversation (in the story, Williams lets us in on both sides), but it indicates that Billy’s sick and probably dying—though we don’t learn from what. Clara doesn’t think her husband knows, but it’s evident he does, which may account for all his behavioral aberrations. The couple, however, don’t ever talk about this—or much of anything else. Things are obviously getting direr and in a last act of desperation, Billy decides to burn the creatures out, torching the tree and the deck, terrifying Clara until the firefighters arrive and put the smoky blaze out. This act leaves Clara distraught, but Billy is unperturbed. (Egloff has moved the action up to 2015, and Clara’s phone call is on a cell—but Billy apparently writes on an old-fashioned manual typewriter, not a laptop or even an electric machine. A reference to Tennessee Williams sitting on a similar deck back in the ‘40s? It’s a curiosity.)
You Lied To Me About Centralia by John Guare (The House of Blue Leaves, 1971 and 1986, 1986 Tony nominee; Landscape of the Body; and Six Degrees of Separation, 1990, 1991 Tony and Pulitzer nominee, Atlantic City, screenplay 1982, Oscar nominee) is the story of Jim, Laura’s gentleman caller from Glass Menagerie, after leaving the Wingfield apartment after dinner that night. Guare doesn’t say anything about this (though the original story gives much the same account as Menagerie), so you have to know Menagerie to recognize the narrative Jim (Theis) tells his fiancée, Betty (Bartle), when they meet in the waiting room of St. Louis’s Union Station. Set in 1937, You Lied recounts Jim’s meeting with Betty after her return from a train trip to her rich uncle. She’d told him she was going to Centralia, Missouri, so Jim wouldn’t know that she was going to ask her uncle for money to make a down payment on a house she wants. Jim had even waited for Betty at the wrong platform because of her fib. She says she’s hungry, but he tells her he’s already eaten, and related his evening at the home of Tom, his co-worker at the shoe factory where they both work. Betty’s instantly alarmed. Tom’s something of an outcast and Jim and the other workers call him “Nancy-Boy” for his effeminate ways after they discovered he writes poetry on the tops of the shoe boxes. (Both of these details are facts of Williams’s time as a young man when he took a job in the shoe factory where his father was a travelling salesman. The aspiring poet did write poems on the box tops and C. C. Williams called his son “Miss Nancy.”) But Jim regrets his cruelty once he’s gotten to know Tom, and he enjoyed the evening at Tom’s home, even dancing with his slightly peculiar sister, Laura. Betty’s immediately jealous. What does this mean? Is Jim in love with this Laura? Of course, Jim had told his hosts that he was engaged to be married in a few weeks, and they said goodbye to him in disappointment, but Jim seems to have picked up on something he doesn’t quite understand yet, and I wondered if a marriage to conventional and self-centered Betty would really work out. (She hadn’t gotten the money from her rich uncle. He’d already gotten them a wedding gift.)
Desire Quenched by Touch (“Desire and the Black Masseur,” 1948) by Marcus Gardley (PEN/Laura Pels Award-winner; . . . And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, 2010; Every Tongue Confess, 2010; and The Box: A Black Comedy, 2014), set in the massage room of a public bathhouse and the office of police Detective Bacon in New Orleans in 1952, is disturbing in a different way from Resemblance and it has an especially gruesome ending. (I won’t reveal the ending, but I will note that Leverich reports in Tom that the young Williams was fascinated with Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.) Yaegel T. Welch is Grand, an African-American masseur at a public bathhouse in New Orleans who’s being questioned by Smith’s Bacon, an NOPD detective, over the mysterious disappearance of Grand’s most frequent—and eccentric—client, John Skelley’s Burns. As Bacon interviews Grand—it’s not hostile at first, although the detective believes the masseur is involved in Burns’s vanishing—we see flashbacks of Grand’s increasingly sadomasochistic massages as Burns begs for ever more punishing treatment until the masseur performs an act so shocking it doesn’t seem to suit the play Gardley wrote. (In Williams’s original story, which he saw as a tale of atonement, Grand is more in tune with the violence and the story is more forthcoming about the pleasure a black man takes in abusing a white man in the era of Jim Crow.)
Oriflamme (1974; retitled from “The Red Part of a Flag,” 1944) by David Grimm (Measure for Pleasure, 2006; The Miracle at Naples, 2009; and Tales from Red Vienna, 2014) takes place on a hill in a park in St. Louis on a summer afternoon in 1939 where Anna (Rooth) has fled to escape her stultifying life and encounters Rodney (Smith in an entirely different performance from his others here). (Hilton Als, in his New Yorker profile of Williams, asserts that Anna is a homage to Grand, the playwright’s maternal grandmother, who died in 1944, for her “anarchic spirit.” I said Williams reused his bio for his writing.) Anna, who could be a reflection of Blanche Du Bois from Streetcar or Alma Winemiller from Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities, has been feeling confined by her life, especially her job at the local department store, so one afternoon she decides to buy herself a scarlet silk evening dress—and then, to the shock of the store’s staff, insists on wearing it out even though it’s “a dress for the evening.” The dress gives her not only a sense of freedom and sensuous delight, but frees her inner naughty girl, a trait she has repressed since childhood. Anna finds herself in the park, at the top of a hill, where she finds Rodney, known as Hooch because of the flask he always carries in his pocket. (The character of Rodney was invented by Grimm.) He’s sitting on the top of the back of a wooden bench, his feet on the seat, reading a racing form. Rodney, as Anna prefers to call him at first, is a vulgar, rough working man (a portrait, not so much of a prototype of Stanley Kowalski, but Cornelius Coffin Williams, the writer’s abusive father) and he spots confused and conflicted Anna in her slinky, provocative red dress, as a potential conquest. He plies her with booze and insidiously chats her up. She recounts many incidents from her past and her regrets and wishes, until Rodney moves in for the clinch. She reacts with instant fear and anger at Rodney’s presumption of intimacy and Rodney leaves in a frustrated huff. As he departs, Anna gives a little cough into her hand, revealing a large spot of blood, and we see that she’s probably quite sick. (In the story, Williams reveals Anna’s fatal condition early, but in the play it’s not foreshadowed. In fact, the story makes clear that Anna will die before the day’s out, but Grimm leaves her fate uncertain.)
The Field of Blue Children (1939; originally written in 1928, when Williams was still a teenager) by Rebecca Gilman (Pulitzer and Olivier Awards nominee; Spinning into Butter, 2000; Boy Gets Girl, 2000; and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, 2005) updates the writer’s story to today and makes it a comedy of sexual awakening and suppressed desires from Williams original contemplative tale of a conformist college sorority sister who secretly yearns for more. Set on and around the campus of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Layley (Bartle) is taking a poetry class to learn how to say things she thinks in better, more expressive ways. She’s inarticulate (though not actually stupid, as hinted by her own joke about her sorority, “Tri Delt”: “They’re so stupid that they only knew one Greek letter. So they repeated it three times: Delta Delta Delta”) so all she can say to the class’s best poet, Dylan (Skelley), is that she likes his poems. But she’s attracted to more than Dylan’s poetry and she meets him at a coffee house for a poetry reading, foregoing the popular kids’ big after-game party for the homecoming football game with Ole Miss, ’Bama’s traditional rival. Walking though the park after the reading, she and Dylan have a sexual encounter, invited by Layley, which is played hilariously for all its serious implications. (Okay. After removing Layley’s panties at her suggestion, Dylan puts his head up under her dress and Layley goes off increasingly loudly, like Meg Ryan’s Sally in the famous delicatessen scene in When Harry Met Sally . . . .) But both Dylan and Layley have significant others, his a somewhat militant and aggressively intellectual black student named Meaghan (Adele) and hers the conventional “perfect” upper-crust frat boy, Grant (Cross), but neither Dylan nor Layley are happy with their partners. (Grant is as emptyheaded as the sorority girls, the kind of guy, if this weren’t set in 2015, you’d expect to come bounding into the house, asking, “Tennis, anyone?” And Meaghan is as narrow-minded and dismissive in her way as the puffballs of fraternity and sorority row are assumed to be.) Layley’s sorority sisters, Cee Cee (Brett) and Curry (Rooth), are as bubbleheaded, vacuous, and judgmental as their stereotypes are expected to be—but in ways silly enough to be funny more than mean. Both Dylan and, especially, Layley ultimately feel compelled to stay within their social and self-defined bounds and after Layley delivers an unintended surprise, the two students who might have made a great pair if they broke their self-constructed bonds walk away from one another into the predictable future that Layley, in particular, has already laid out for us.
I liked the physical production very much. The basic set for Desire, designed by Jeff Cowie, is the same through the whole evening, with a few set pieces added to set the scenes for each play (or each location for the few multi-scene plays). The main piece of scenery is an abstract tree on stage right, really an assemblage of yellow-ish painted boards forming a trunk and branches at the top, disappearing into the fly space. Tom and Roe in Resemblance sit in it and pose in the branches and Billy is hidden among its branches with his leaf-blower when Tent Worms opens. Up stage, across the back of the set, is a wooden wall made of weathered gray boards (very reminiscent of traditional structures on Cape Cod and the islands), but the boards are put together in varying patterns rather than parallel straight across the wall: there are patches that look like boarded-up windows and vertical strips as well as horizontal ones. It’s not representative, except that it’s a wooden wall. Is it the side of a barn? A garage? A neighboring house? A shack? We don’t really know.
The wall, however, also serves as a projection screen, when Cowie’s slides and videos sometimes obliterate the wood texture, sometimes superimpose another image over the wood texture. One of the most marvelous projections comes in Resemblance when Richard Miles rides in on his bicycle. First of all, director Michael Wilson eschews an actual bike, using two actors to carry in bicycle wheels, one in front of Brian Cross and one behind, while Miles paces along in a meandering course across the stage. (Sara Swanberg designed the show’s props.) It’s an extremely delightful and expressive image, made more dramatic by the multiple projections of bike wheels on the back wall, floating around like giant ping pong balls in slow motion. It’s a joyful and dreamlike picture and makes clear why Roe, in her world of circumscribed behavior, is so intrigued with the handsome Richard. Other projections were less dynamic than the bicycle but no less expressive and revealing. The black-and-white photographic representation of the railroad station interior in You Lied, for instance, reminiscent of old Penn Station in New York City, was better than most CGI effects I’ve seen in movies—more evocative and pointed, it’s both old (because it’s black and white and a period image) and real (because it’s a photo, not a drawing or painting) at the same time.
Davis C. Woolard’s costumes not only vividly set the time for each play, but the mood and personality of each character. That scarlet silk gown Anna wears in Oriflamme is a perfect example—it tells Anna’s whole story in a visual. (It doesn’t hurt that Liv Rooth uses it as a prop much the way a Restoration character might use a fan or a handkerchief. It speaks its own dialogue.) All the visual aspects of the production were brought to life and energized by the lighting of Russel H. Champa (with an assist from the cast, of course). In fact, I have to add here that one of the greatest pleasures of this production was that it was a true and pervasive ensemble, stretching not only to all the members of the cast, which is usually what defines an ensemble production, and, of course, to the director, but to each of the designers who created elements of the show. (I don’t know if the writers continued to participate in the creation of this production once rehearsals started, but if they did, they had to be part of this collaboration.) Everything fit too well for it to have been accidental or good luck, even if Wilson were a theatrical genius. Desire is an example of what can happen when artists of every field work together with one another to create a performance. (If I’m wrong on this, if the Acting Company’s Desire was merely the result of a happy accident, I’d just as soon not hear about it. Leave me in my benighted ignorance. I’m happy here.)
Michael Wilson’s direction is both solid and sure-handed, as well as appropriate for the circumstances of each playlet. (He’s had some experience with Tennessee Williams material: The Red Devil Battery Sign, world première in 1996, and the 2011 revival of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. In 1999, as artistic director of Connecticut’s Hartford Stage, Wilson launched a 10-year marathon of Williams’s works, including the premières in 2003 of Now the Cats with Jeweled Claws, The Palooka, and The One Exception.) First, his choice of cast, all nine members of the ensemble, and of the design concept (with Cowie, Woolard, Champa, and Gromada) are both excellent, well-tailored to each of the stories and their varied circumstances. (I don’t know if Wilson had a say in the selection of the six playwrights who made the adaptations, but if he did, obviously along with Acting Company producer Margot Harley and artistic director Ian Belknap, he deserves kudos for that as well.) All of that, however, would have come to naught if Wilson also hadn’t wielded a master director’s hand at working with the actors, no matter how talented they are individually. He guided them all into characterizations that perfectly fit the roles each actor plays in each adaptation, helping (or allowing) each performer to create characters often so different from one another that I wasn’t always able to detect immediately that they were the same actors I’d just seen in another part. If nothing else, Wilson made Desire a showcase for excellent acting—not that I’d have expected anything less from the Acting Company.
But the director did do more. I covered some of the design and production elements with which I was impressed when I wrote about the physical production earlier so you know that there are some immensely clever aspects to the staging that lend the perfect touch to several of the plays. (The bicycling sequences in Remembrance are one elegant example.) Some are subtle and some blatant, depending on need and appropriateness. Either Wilson is familiar with Williams’s concept of plastic theater (on which I’ve blogged: see “‘The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theater,” 9 May 2012) or he succumbed to the pull of the idea because it’s embedded in Williams’s writing, even his prose. His work with the actors, though, is just admirable. Wilson’s not a show-off, but he’s decidedly more than a traffic director. (I’ve seen his work in Tina Howe’s Chasing Manet, and Horton Foote’s The Orphans’ Home Cycle and Old Friends—blog reports dated 30 April 2009, 25 and 28 February 2010, and 10 October 2013.) I could see his hand in each play, determining the performance style while still remaining true to the Williams dynamic that underlies each adaptation. Of course, in this Wilson had to collaborate with the actors and the writers, but the director’s the final ringmaster. I must, however, make a special mention of the acting in Resemblance, especially the work of Juliet Brett as Roe and Mickey Theis as Tom. Both 20-something actors play children—Roe’s a ’tween or young teen on the verge of puberty and Tom’s still a little boy two years younger—without resorting to cliché or mugging; the portrayals are mostly predicated on how well the characters understand what’s happening to and around them, and that informs the rest of their behavior. (The moment Roe has her first period, Brett’s Roe is terrified and Theis’s Tom is totally confused. She runs off in horror; he dithers in bewilderment.) As much as the success of that work depends on the actors, it also has to rely on the sensitivity of the director—especially to get the actors to work in tandem with one another.
It’s almost too hard to single out any performance as exemplary. Not one portrayal was lacking, even the incidental ones. If there were caricatures, such as Layley’s sorority sisters in Blue Children, they were called for; if there were emotional excesses, such as Anna’s in Oriflamme and Billy’s in Tent Worms, they came from Williams’s stories—and they were all handled with just the right touch to keep them within the world of Williams’s narrative. I must single out one of Derek Smith’s depictions: Rodney (AKA “Hooch”) in Oriflamme. I said he’s the only actor on the bill who’s name I recognized immediately, and even though he’s aged a bit since I saw him at 26, I knew him as soon as he appeared on stage in Tent Worms. (The quality of his work hadn’t changed, I must add.) He was still recognizable, though displaying a different persona, as Detective Bacon in Desire Quenched by Touch. But when the lights came up on Oriflamme and this guy was sitting up on the back of the park bench, I had to check the program when the house light came up again to find that this was the same actor I thought I knew. He not only looked different—that may have been partly due to the costume since he didn’t wear heavy character makeup or anything—but he was such a different person, even sounding different, I thought it was one of the other cast members. That’s all acting, not directing or writing, and it was very exciting for an ex-actor to witness.
I’ve already written about Liv Rooth’s work in Oriflamme and Juliett Brett’s and Mickey Theis’s in Resemblance. Another stand-out performance is given by Yaegel T. Welch as Grand in Desire Quenched, who appears stalwart and straightforward until we get to see him in the flashbacks where we watch him mask a sadistic bent, fueled by a need for payback, with an almost clinical detachment as Grand bends and manhandles Burns in torturous ways as John Skelley’s Burns keeps begging for more. As an acting job, it’s an exercise in control and objectification. If the grisly ending doesn’t quite reconcile with the rest of the story or Welch’s character, that’s more on Williams (and probably Marcus Gardley) than Welch.
The rest of the company, which, as I said, made up a thoroughgoing ensemble, was first class and singling out a few doesn’t detract from the overall high standards the actors set. These guys were just plain terrific.
In the press, the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood wrote that the Desire playlets “often breathe with the same fervent romanticism that marks [Williams’s] plays,” even as he acknowledged, “Some are more successful than others.” Isherwood, however, was negative on the question of “whether second-guessing [Williams] himself . . . is a fruitful pastime.” the Timesman’s answer: “Over all, on the evidence of this production, I’d have to say no.” In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer called the collection “consistently engrossing and often ingenious” because she felt that “the playwrights . . . manage to evoke vivid themes and shadows of Williams without a hint of overheated parody or the loss of each individual voice.” “Expertly directed,” asserted Winer, Desire “made me yearn to read the stories.”
Jesse Green characterized Desire as “another in a series of theatrical misadventures that makes you question the management of the Tennessee Williams estate,” dubbing the stage adaptations “experiments in exploitation.“ Green stated, “I suppose I wouldn’t be complaining about this if any of the experiments were ever any good, but they’re not, and this latest one . . . is particularly annoying, like shaking up a soda can full of tired Tennessee-isms, then popping the top and letting it spray.” The New York reviewer went on to disparage the directing of Michael Wilson, “who does not make a glorious showing here,” and the choice of stories, which “feels fairly random.” Green acknowledged that “the performances . . . are the only generally successful elements of the endeavor.” In the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” column, the reviewer noted that “you can hear Tennessee Williams’s dramatis personae echoing through this evening of one-acts based on his short stories . . . . Sometimes these echoes are the best bits, as several of the adaptations are merely workmanlike.”
In Time Out New York, David Cote felt that “each playlet is both equal homage to a master and playful riff on a source” and that Desire “is satisfying in small, intense doses.” Cote observed that “these stories are not subtle in their literary devices or symbolic gestures, and the plays are most interesting when the authors mitigate such flamboyant, combustible material with their own voice and vision.” The man from TONY added that Wilson “directs an appealing, uniformly good ensemble” and concluded, “Most American playwrights working today owe some debt to Williams; it’s a pleasure, even inspiring, to see six give back.”
The Huffington Post’s David Finkle thought that adapting the Williams stories was a “wonderful idea” which Wilson directed “capably.” He ended by acknowledging, “An added attraction of Desire . . . is that it makes reading or re-reading the short stories from which the six plays are derived a temptation too strong to resist.” On CurtainUp, Simon Saltzman stated that the playlets “have been given mainly fine, often better than that, dramatic shape and form” by the adapters and are “all intentionally intoxicating” and have been “rhapsodically and on occasion rambunctiously staged .” Saltzman concluded, “Though this collection will be most fulfilling for Williams devotees it will also entertain” others. Talkin’ Broadway’s Howard Miller asserted that the adaptations in Desire range “from seamless translation from short story to play, to intriguing joining of Williams with the adaptor, to some of that unfortunate veering into caricature.” Miller also praised the “very solid cast” and the “excellent scenic and projection design.”
Marina Kennedy proclaimed on Broadway World that the stories in Desire have been “brilliantly adapted for the stage” and display “extraordinary direction” which area “audiences will not want to miss.” “Each and every scene in Desire is entrancing,” Kennedy said, and the cast is “multi-talented.” On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart declared of Desire, “As with most evenings of one-acts, the results are hit-and-miss.” John Gromada’s music is “dreamy,” said Stewart, “Russell H. Champa's lighting is similarly otherworldly,” while “Director Wilson exhibits a remarkable range.” The one-act plays in Desire “offer a fascinating lesson in the art of adaptation,” wrote Jonathan Mandell of New York Theater.