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Wispy boys, sex-starved slatterns, he-men, and faded belles surround a cream-suited Tennessee Williams as he taps at his typewriter in the opening moments of Five by Tenn. If you’ve been anywhere near a theater in the last half-century, you’ll likely recognize these archetypes. Some, you’ll even be able to assign names—Brick, Amanda, Kilroy, Blanche, Maggie—and if, strictly speaking, those monikers don’t apply to this particular evening of Williams one-acts, they’ll certainly do as placeholders. Icons remain iconic, even in prototype form.
So there’s a bit of Kowalski and Dubois to Karl and Candy, the brute and belle in And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens…, and a crystal-menagerie-at-the-beach aspect to the mother-son conversations in Escape. Squint a little and you’ll recognize details along the camino surreal that serves as the setting for The Municipal Abattoir. And isn’t that the author himself hanging out in a theater usher’s uniform in These Are the Stairs You Got to Watch? Surely there he is again, as an older man, stammering and tongue-tied in I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow?
Michael Kahn’s deft, attractive staging of four world premieres (discovered recently among the author’s papers at the University of Texas at Austin) and one previously produced television script goes out of its way to suggest that the playwright is pretty much everywhere in Five by Tenn. And just in case you miss that notion, actor Jeremy Lawrence pops by interstitially as the Writer, in that cream-colored suit, to provide a through-line in words taken from Williams’ autobiography, Memoirs.
Lisping lightly, the Writer offers a bright-to-the-point-of-twinkling commentary on everything from Williams’ critics (“When I said I slept through the ‘60s, I was making a bad joke!”) to his method (“Never mix sex and religion, but you can always write safely about mothers”) to his characters (“people who have to fight for their dreams, people who come close to cracking”). He also sets scenes and points out thematic and biographical connections. Mostly, though, he serves as a genial host of what is designed as a chronological jaunt through heretofore unexplored, if somehow familiar, Williams territory.
Lost innocence lurks at the top of a decrepit movie palace’s marble staircase in These Are the Stairs You Got to Watch, the first of the evening’s playlets. Penned when Williams was still in college, it’s the tale of a 15-year-old (Hunter Gilmore) who’s lied about his age to get a job as a theater usher, only to be left almost speechless by the schemes of patrons and the murky stratagems of co-workers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the playwright has a similarly tough time expressing himself so early in his career. He came up with a character sketch that’s more slice of life than drama, filled with incident and intriguing premises but mostly marking time.
Time is of the essence in the second play, Escape, in which a slightly older, even quieter teenager (Cameron Folmar) stares dejectedly out a window as his mother (Joan van Ark) natters on about the summer heat and the dissolution of her marriage. Folmar is so adept at capturing the desperation behind the boy’s silence that it’s downright startling to find the same actor chattering away in the evening’s centerpiece, And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens…. This time, he’s Candy, an interior decorator with a fondness for silky negligees and chiffon robes, who’s picked up a drunken sailor at a bar, imagining him to be husband material. Karl (Myk Watfard) may well be a closet case, but he’s not quite ready for Candy’s brand of femininity, and well…saying more would give too much away, so let’s just note that there almost has to be a streetcar named Lust just down the block from Candy’s place, and that Queens sends the audience out to intermission in high buzz, marveling at the richness of the treasure trove Kahn is unearthing.
Post-intermission, the pickings are slimmer, much as they were in Williams’ post-Streetcar career. Still, there are tidbits for those who are in an academic frame of mind. Posters with “Viva” in block letters across Franco’s face place the fourth playlet, an otherwise Orwellian piece of agitprop called The Municipal Abattoir, explicitly in the same milieu as Williams’ best-known experiment with political material, Camino Real. In Abattoir, the innocent protagonist (Thomas Jay Ryan) who’s travelling a lonely road to destruction is a Clerk, not a Kilroy, but he’s just as hapless, unworldly, and apolitical in a world where only the fiercely committed seem to survive.
Ryan turns up again in the evening’s final playlet, the penned-for-television I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow, which hails from the years when the playwright was widely regarded as having outlived his talent. Williams, toward the end of his life, appeared incapable of bringing a dramatic situation to a conclusion, and Ryan plays a man who has precisely that problem with sentences. Only when a close confidante (Kathleen Chalfant) goads him mercilessly can he follow nouns and verbs to a satisfying conclusion. The problem is that the woman is dying, and she wants to see him whole before she goes.
The acting and pacing are a tad uneven—Chalfant, the evening’s biggest marquee name, isn’t particularly persuasive as she rushes her lines in the final playlet, and while there’s some nice, understated work from Folmar, Gilmore, and a few others, not everyone matches their restraint. That said, the evening looks terrific; designer Andrew Jackness wheels in staircases and flies in walls, and Howell Binkley evokes everything from a lakeshore at twilight to the dank recesses of a worn movie palace with his shifting shadows and alternately bleak and warm illumination.
What can’t be helped—at least, not if the director is using these fresh plays to trace the familiar arc of Williams’ career—is a too-early peak to the evening. The buzz at intermission inevitably gives way to disappointment thereafter, much as the fervor surrounding the playwright subsided after his huge hits in the ’50s. Only the quips and epigrams of the Writer would sustain the celebratory mood to the end if Kahn weren’t such a visual stylist. Happily, he whips up one last extravagant tableau of the writer surrounded by his characters—icons all, even the ones we’ve just met—and lets us savor it as the lights fade.
French audiences appear to be absolutely enthralled by any entertainment that allows them to feel superior to intellectuals. They adore Woody Allen. They howled when Yasmina Reza skewered the pretensions of the art world in Art. And now, they’ve sent us Enigma Variations, not so much a whodunit as a who-done-what? in which playwright Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt establishes by stages that a Nobel Prize–winning novelist is really just a lovesick boob.
Abel Znorko (Conrad Feininger) is the boob in question, a dyspeptic hermit, living on an island somewhere above the Arctic Circle. Znorko’s literary reputation rests on 20 philosophical works, plus one just-published epistolary romance that is in the process of becoming a best seller. At evening’s outset, Erik Larsen (Bill Largess), a small-town journalist, has arrived to interview Znorko about this latest book, only to be shot at by his host as he enters the gate. Znorko, informed that he has himself invited Larsen, mostly limits himself to verbal potshots thereafter, but he’s little more hospitable than this first exchange suggests.
With good reason, it turns out. Larsen is less than forthcoming even as he startles his host with knowledge about Znorko’s inner thoughts; and as the play proceeds, both men give up their secrets in spurts, and Znorko slowly realizes he’s more intimately related to this stranger than he could ever have suspected.
Enigma Variations is constructed as a sort of literary homage to British composer Edward Elgar’s 14-movement symphonic work of that same title. Elgar’s piece is composed of variations on a never-stated musical theme that the composer went to his grave without identifying, except to say it was a popular melody almost anyone would recognize. Schmitt’s play could be said to work in a similar fashion, twisting the conventions of literary romance without quite identifying what’s being twisted. Through a series of unexpected revelations, it becomes clear that the epistolary novel is at once both more and less than it seems, but the revelations that make this clear become so unexpected in the play’s end stages that they register as silly. Still, there’s cleverness to the situation, even when the alleged conversations—“Being you is beyond my gifts, so I’m glad you exist”; “I am so worthless, I can only be venerated”; “I never wanted to live life, I wanted to write life”—devolve into epigrammatic duels.
Feininger plays the Nobel winner as an irredeemably selfish ass, Largess plays his interrogator as a pretentious sentimentalist, and Alan Wade’s lickety-split staging requires them both to spit out their lines as if they were running a quip race. This keeps things brisk, but it also shortchanges any emotional impact the evening might conceivably have, and in a play where every third quip is about love, that just can’t be what’s intended. CP