Let me throw out some playwrights’ names, and, after each, you say the first few adjectives that come to mind.
Eugene O’Neill. Noel Coward. Arthur Miller. Tennessee Williams.
OK, let’s reconnoiter: Did O’Neill prompt something on the order of “troubled,” “poetic,” or “dark”? Did Coward bring “funny” to mind, and then maybe “brittle” or “sophisticated”? Miller could have prompted almost anything from “principled” to “plain-spoken” to “middle-class,” and no matter what else you came up with for Williams, one of the words you used to describe him was “Southern,” right?
Well, the current crop of revivals won’t do a thing to reinforce any of those notions. Washington Shakespeare Company has found a startlingly theatrical way to make O’Neill brisk, bright, and very funny, while Olney Theatre is mining a leaden, mundane streak in what ought to be a bouncy Coward comedy. Arena Stage is producing Miller’s straightforward naturalism as if audiences couldn’t be trusted to understand a metaphor that wasn’t being beaten to death visually. And the Shakespeare Theatre has tackled the one drama in the Williams canon—Camino Real—that has not one single trace of a Southern drawl.
Go figure…and start figuring with the Williams play, because it’s at once the biggest stretch and the closest to what the author probably intended.
Camino Real takes place in a garish, sleazy coastal town where Spanish is the lingua franca and corruption is the only way of life. On one side of the stage stands a faded hotel for decaying romantics, populated by the likes of Casanova (Jean LeClerc) and Camille (Joan Van Ark). On the other side are a flophouse and a fortune teller’s tent where, once each month, in a parody of a fertility rite, a Gypsy (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) ceremonially restores the virginity of her tartish daughter (Tessa Auberjonois).
Between these extremes lies a waterless fountain—”the spring of humanity has gone dry,” someone says—around which hustlers hustle and grifters grift and uniformed thugs keep the peace by clubbing anyone who gets in their way. At the back of the stage is a staircase leading to “terra incognita.” It’s the only way out of town, unless you count the Fugitivo, an unreliable airplane that carts a few wealthy lost souls off to God knows where.
Those who are trapped on the Camino Real (it’s a pun, meaning both “royal road” and “reality”) know only too well how their own end will come: They watch faceless, giggling streetcleaners carting off corpses every day.
Into this desolate spot wander two mirror-image idealists—Don Quixote (Philip Goodwin), who mutters a few platitudes and lapses into a deep sleep until the play’s final scene, and Kilroy (Victor Love), an all-American prizefighter with a “heart as big as the head of a baby,” who is too compassionate to preserve his purity by simply withdrawing from corruption. Instead, he challenges it in ways so innocent, trusting, and sweet that he’s labeled a patsy by the authorities and forced to wear a clown outfit.
Though we’ve reached only the seventh of 16 scenes at this point, it will likely have occurred to you that Williams is trafficking rather heavily in symbolism. All the author’s plays deal in metaphor and allusion, but this one practices a more robust brand of abstraction. To depict cruelty in Camino Real, Williams doesn’t bring on Stanley Kowalski; he brings on actual Fascists with clubs. To wrestle with issues of seduction, he calls on literature’s greatest seducers. To show American innocence getting battered abroad, he conjures up a 3-D version of Kilroy, the ubiquitous doughboy of World War II graffiti.
Michael Kahn’s alternately hallucinatory and earthbound production does much the same thing, peopling the town with carnival grotesques who occasionally spill past the proscenium arch into the auditorium and staging the central scenes as if they were production numbers in some wayward musical comedy. Between the blind seer, the dancing egg, the bare-breasted nun, and the phallus-tailed devil that the director puts on display, he can certainly be said to have provided a varied menu of decadence—and a workout for his designers.
But if this stage phantasmagoria proves diverting enough to keep audiences occupied, it can’t keep the evening from succumbing eventually to a kind of structural inertia. Williams hasn’t provided a plot in Camino Real so much as an authorial trek from hypersensitivity to salvation. He paves the way with good intentions, dialogue that verges on verse, and affectionate championing of little guys everywhere, but the result remains more a journey than a play.
Still, the Shakespeare Theatre’s cast is more or less ideal, especially in the central roles. Victor Love’s Kilroy is sexy and forthright, and has the sort of headlamp smile that would melt the heart of any reconstituted virgin. Dorn’s Gypsy is a bawdily trashy hoot. Van Ark’s Camille is as breathily desperate as she is alluringly fevered, and LeClerc’s age-stooped Casanova has a moving, world-weary air, coupled with enough gravity to anchor speeches that get too airy for their own good.
Camino Real’s 1953 Broadway premiere, staged by Elia Kazan, met with critical derision in New York, but Kahn says in his program notes that it has haunted him since he saw it as a teenager. I should probably confess that I’ve been haunted by the play, too, since I caught a college production that deployed legions of student actors to create a sort of three-ring philosophical circus.
What mostly caught me as a youth was the playwright’s way with language, which is every bit as varied as his characters. “File this crap under Crap,” bellows the brassy Gypsy to her transvestite maid. “Why does disappointment make people so unkind to each other?” wonders Casanova in a reflective moment. “Time betrays us, and we betray each other,” responds Camille. “The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks!” shouts a doddering Quixote, ending a symbolic tale of purity’s battle with corruption on as affirmative a note as Williams can muster.
If you hear those lines as poetic, you’ll be pleased to find that there are plenty more where they came from. If, however, they sound to you like fortune-cookie philosophizing, you’re in for a long evening.
Questing, free-spirited Cass, I can’t help thinking, would love Camino Real.
Cass (Deb Gottesman, oozing misdirected energy from every pore) is the young woman who leaves her husband in the opening scene of David Lindsay-Abaire’s frenetically hilarious new comedy, Wonder of the World, to travel any and all roads not taken.
She does this in the wake of her discovery that she barely knows her husband, Kip (Michael Russotto), who has been hiding (for reasons it would be unfair for me to reveal) a box of Barbie heads in the back of his sweater drawer. Cass figures that if she’s ended up in bed with a near-total stranger by playing it safe, she might as well go ahead and do the things she’s been warned not to do all her life. This proves a liberating decision.
“Don’t talk to strangers,” her parents kept repeating, so, as soon as she’s hopped a bus out of town, she strikes up a conversation with Lois (Nancy Robinette in addled overdrive), an alcoholic whose husband has just left her and who is definitely not up for small talk. Lois’ response to the disintegration of her marriage is a bit different from Cass’—she’s holding in her lap a pickle barrel in which she plans to ride over Niagara Falls. Soulmates of a sort—call them an East Coast Thelma and Louise—they end up sharing a hotel room while Lois is mustering the courage to drag her
pickle barrel to river’s edge.
At which point other folks enter their lives: There are the captain of the tour boat Maid of the Mist (Kirk Jackson), who recently lost his wife in a freak kitchen accident involving an industrial-sized jar of peanut butter, and the helicopter pilot (Emily Townley) who is deathly afraid of heights. There is also a pair of married private eyes, one of whom is all business (Kerri Rambow), the other (Bruce Nelson) so chatty that he tends to give the game away to the people he’s surreptitiously following.
Lindsay-Abaire has assembled these eccentrics, as well as some goofy theme-restaurant employees and other hangers-on, to explore questions of fate and coincidence. He’s a clever writer, and for the better part of two hours, he makes that exploration uproarious enough that audiences will probably forgive him for pulling out a gun in his final scene, making a last-minute turn into harsher territory when a character turns out to be nastier than anyone could reasonably anticipate.
That detour feels unearned, because the one thing the author hasn’t done in Wonder of the World—which might equally well be titled Women Past the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown—is come to any real conclusions, either about fate and coincidence or about his characters. They’re funny, they interact, and then he quite literally leaves them hanging.
Still, in Woolly Mammoth’s world premiere, he sure does so in style. Tom Prewitt’s staging keeps things hopping at a brisk clip on a Lewis Folden set that echoes the play in trying to be too many things at once—museum, waterfall, hotel—but is nonetheless a riot of invention. Hana Sellers’ sound design is terrific, whether she’s creating the roar of a chopper or of a waterfall. And the actors—deft comedians all—are a riot. The production serves the author and the audience well, even if there’s still work to do. CP