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A CurtainUp Review
Tennessee Williams' The Two-Character Play
In this case it is Gene David Kirk who revived the play to acclaim at London's Jermyn Street Theatre in 2010 and whose production made a short stop the following year at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival. For the New York production, Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif are bringing a compassionately daffy but also impressively deft resonance to the production now at the New World Stages.
Committed to rewriting both the opening and ending of the play a number of times since it premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in 1967 as well as for subsequent productions when he re-titled it Outcry (the title used for its New York premiere in 1973), Williams must surely have known what a remarkably fluid and flexible play he was nurturing. Like many playwrights who felt they had more than explored the traditional dramatic form, he was impelled to go in a more metaphysical direction, a direction that at the time confounded most of critics (how remarkable) and confused the audience (how typical).
Outcry or The Two-Character Play seems to have survived its quick demise after ten days at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater. What's more, it somehow continues to evolve, at least in our own consciousness, both mysteriously and marvelously even without any further re-writes by Williams.
The play is about a middle-aged brother and sister, actors who have apparently made a career of appearing together. Deemed nuts by the company with whom they have presumably been touring, they have been abandoned. Without a place to go, they resolve to stay put and perform the play in the deserted, darkened theater somewhere in a deep Southern town.
Although there were moments early in the performance when the dialogue was difficult to hear and there is frustration when we miss any of the deliciously tender but testy words passed between Felice (Dourif) and Clare (Plummer). However, the play and the performances soon enough radiate with a more determined and assured playfulness.
It is safe to say that both Dourif's Felice and Plummer's Clare serve as excellent guides into a world with multiple levels of reality. Forget what you have read or heard. This play is neither cryptic nor confusing. Felice and Clare's realize how silly and futile it is to attempt to be totally faithful to the play they had been performing. We appreciate how inventive they are, as working professionals, at injecting into the play their personal, often tortured memories in the light of their complicated but always supportive relationship.
Much has been written about Williams' personal link to the plot that finds Felice and Clare determined to essentially carry on without the cast and perform a version of the play that will include as much improvisatory embellishment as they determine on the spot. The humor is as evident to us as it is also to Felice and Clare who are, indeed, pros as they eventually realize that they have been unable to keep or assume that they haven't been able to keep the imagined audience from leaving the theater — despite their best, if also self-serving, efforts to entertain.
An on-stage piano among the remnants of designer Alice Walkling's wonderfully seedy setting also provides an opportunity for laughs. Clare decides that every time Felice digresses from the plot and hogs the spotlight she will run over and bang a C sharp. This becomes a running gag and serves as an indication of where the play is going or not going and to what lengths Clare and Felice will go to upstage the other.
Williams' scholars see this play as reflecting both the playwright's despair at the time of the death of his long-time partner Frank Merlo, as well as that of his relationship with his sister Rose. This may be relevant, but it isn't a prerequisite for enjoying the delightfully comical baiting and switching, the admitting and admonishing of lies, as it also provides them with an opportunity for serious soul-searching and truth-telling behind the suicide of their parents, and the inability of Felice and Clare to leave the family home following the tragedy.
The Two-Character Play is certainly no downer or muddled artifact, at least as it is directed with a light and tenderly attentive touch by Kirk and under the moodily effective lighting by Jake Fine. Dourif’s credits include his Oscar-nominated performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the TV series Redwood. His performance here is fine and disquietingly ironic.
Plummer's theater credits are as distinguished as is her place as an interpreter of Williams in major revivals of The Glass Menagerie, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore and Summer and Smoke. She may look a fright with her straggly bleached hair, but she is wonderfully disposed to giving a poignantly dithery nature to a character in a desperate search of her dislocated self.
It is also funny to hear both actors in search of a Southern accent, although it does serve as a bridge from one reality to the next. The only reality we have to consider is how fortunate we are to have this under-valued play back with these players and this director.