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A CurtainUp Review

Five by Tenn

You know, there's nothing I dread more than trying to tell about a play. A play only exists on the stage.
--- The Writer, a Tennessee Williams stand-in whose between play commentary not only pulls these five one-acts together but imbues them with enormous charm and wit.
Jeremy Lawrence  as  The Writer
Jeremy Lawrence as The Writer (Photo: Joan Marcus )
Tennessee Williams, our most poetic modern playwright, was also very prolific. He had a string of big hits, starting with The Glass Menagerie. Some of his later and lesser plays were carried to the stage on those blockbusters' coattails. Since his death considerable attention has been paid not just to these lesser plays but some scripts excavated from his archives at theUniversity of Texas.. Vanessa Redgrave's 1998 discovery of Not About Nightingales which was submitted to a playwrights competition when Williams was still a 26-year-old unknown, was the most successful of these excavations. It was given a big, splendid posthumous debut both in London and this country. Last spring, a less splashy "undiscovered" Williams, Spring Storm ( our review) had a brief run at St. Clements Theater.

When scholars Nick Moschovakis and David Roessel found more than a dozen one-acters (again in the Texas U. archives) and DC Shakespeare Theatre's artistic director Michael Kahn found them interesting enough to think about how best to present the most stageworthy. The result was a five-play anthology -- four chosen from the newly unearthed scripts, and one previously produced as a teleplay. Last year, the Williams evening, cunningly titled Five by Tenn proved to be a hot ticket. (DC production review).

The anthology has traveled from the Beltway to Manhattan Theatre Club's small second stage. Director Kahn, who again directs, has kept three of the original quintet, but substituted two -- probably, to make this evening more of a showcase for Kathleen Chalfant and her new to this production colleagues Penny Fuller and David Rasche. I agree that more of Chalfant is better than less. Fuller and Rashe are quite fine, as are Cameron Folmar and Myk Watford in their reprise of in And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens, the only play to throw off the chronological presentation order. However, this newly configured evening is hardly likely to stir audience enthusiasm as much as the one at the Kennedy Center. In appraising the evening overall, it's the intra-scene bits and pieces with Jeremy Lawrence as a narrator and Williams stand-in are more interesting than the plays themselves

Lawrence's somewhat too hammy Writer looks amazingly like Williams. His monologues, forged from Williams' stage direction, notes and autobiography, shed some light on the choice of these plays to create a picture of different aspects of the playwright's personality and emerging voice. As Lawrence flirtatiously chats up the audience, the actors silently and unobtrusively change the props for the next play, a directorial magic trick that works quite well.

The plays are another matter. The two first up, and the post intermission curtain raiser, have a fragmentary, unfinished playwright quality that would probably be less obvious if they were short stories, a genre in which Williams excelled. The opening piece, Summer at the Lake (1938), presented in DC as Escape, has Penny Fuller playing a smothering, self-absorbed mother in whom anyone familiar with The Glass Menagerie will recognize a nascent Amanda Wingate. The usually elegant Kathleen Chalfant is amusing as a bent-over servant with an unidentifiable accent who must bring the predictable moment of truth about the sensitive son's (Cameron Folmar) casual swim.

The Fat Man's Wife (1939) is about Vera Cartwright (Chalfant), a rich Manhattanite of an uncertain age who is married to the title character (David Rasche, plumped up almost as much as Edna Turnblatt in Hairspray) who not only indulges his appetite for food but for sexual dalliances. When an idealistic young writer begs her to come away with him and really live, Mrs. Cartwright is tempted, but realism prevails. This seems to be a case of Williams trying his hand at the Noel Coward style marital drama. It's a rather feeble attempt and the evening's slightest piece, with more of a woman's magazine fiction than play sensibility.

The Writer's introductory comments to And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens (1959) are particularly pertinent: "I've read things that say Blanche [of Streetcar Named Desire fame] was a drag queen. These charges are ridiculous! If I am writing a female character, goddamnit, I'm gonna write a female character. I'm not gonna write a drag queen! If I wanna write a drag queen, I'll write a drag queen, and I have written one as a matter of fact." Cameron Fomar is terrific as that aging, lonely drag queen and, the Writer's comments notwithstanding, audiences are sure to see strong traces of Blanche in his portrayal. There's also a whiff of Stanley Kowalski in Myk Watford's brutal Karl. The two scenes could conceivably have been built into a full-length play -- though come to think of it, we nowadays have plenty of hour-long plays billed as the sole item on theatrical menus. When preceded by two slim offerings, however, And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens comes off as too long as a one-acter and not quite substantial enough to stand on its own -- though it does showcase Jame Noone and Catherine Zuber's set and costume designing skills.

In Adam and Eve on a Ferry, Chalfant, Fuller and Rasche transform themselves once again. Chalfant is wasted as a sensuous, brunette Frieda Lawrence, who might have stepped out of the pages of one of her husband, D. H. Lawrence's novels. She comes and goes briefly to usher in a flustered American woman (Fuller) who sees Lawrence (Rasche) as someone to whom she can "bare her soul." Lawrence, confined to a wheelchair by a degenerative disease, is indeed receptive to her obsession with a missed opportunity for a sexual encounter and uses his inventive skills to guide her to a happy ending. Once again this seems more a short story (what they used to call a short short) than a play. The acting honors belong mostly to Rasche, with Fuller mainly his foil and Chalfant playing the equivalent of a walk-on part.

Kathleen Chalfant and David Rasche
Kathleen Chalfant and David Rasche in "I Can't Imagine Tomorrow"
(Photo: Joan Marcus )
The last g play, I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow (1970), is the evening's major showcase for Chalfant and Rasche as two middle-aged people known only as One (Chalfant) and Two (Rasche), trapped in the isolation of literal and emotional pain. While this is Ms. Chalfant's only real star turn, it's Rasche who really breaks your heart. His Two is a combination of the author during a period of depression when he couldn't talk to anyone and a shy "gentleman caller. " As the Writer explains, this was written after Williams stopped writing "symphonies" like Streetcar and contented himself with chamber music.

Ultimately, one leaves the theater speculation on how Tennessee Williams would feel about having directors eager to capitalize on the enduring popularity of his best plays rummage through his papers to give life to works probably not intended for public viewing. While he would probably be pleased to have audiences get another look at the 1970 teleplay, and have them see And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens as a forerunner to an era when such stories are no longer rare or daring, this show and tell of his juvenalia scribbling would most likely make him blush.

For more information about Tennesse Williams work and links to other Williams plays reviewed, see our Tennessee Williams backgrounder

Five By Tenn
One-act plays by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Michael Kahn
Cast: Kathleen Chalfant, Cameron Folmar, Penny Fuller, Hunter Gilmore, Jeremy Lawrence, David Rasche, Robert Sella and Myk Watford.
Jeremy Lawrence appears between plays as The Writer, a figure based on Williams' writings.

Summer at the Lake (Performed under the title Escape at the Kennedy Center)
Kathleen Chalfant (Anna), Cameron Folmar (Donald Fenway) and Penny Fuller (Mrs. Fenway).
The Fat Man’s Wife
Kathleen Chalfant (Vera Cartwright), David Rache (Josie Cartwright) and Robert Sella (Dennis Merriweather).
And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens
Myk Watford (Karl), Cameron Folmar (Candy Delaney), Hunter Gilmore (Alvin Krenning) and Robert Sella (Jerry Johnson).
Adam and Eve on a Ferry
Kathleen Chalfant (Frieda), Penny Fuller (Visitor) and David Rasche (Lawrence).
I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow
Kathleen Chalfant (One) and David Rasche (Two)
Set Design: James Noone
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: Traci Kleiner
Sound Design: Scott Killian
Original Music:Adam Wernick
Running time: 3 hours, includes one intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club, Stage II at NY City Center, 131 West 55th Street (212) 581-1212
From 10/19/04; opening 11/11/04. Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30 PM, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 PM. Tickets are $48 ( $25 student tickets on sale for all performances based on availability, on the day of the performance, up to one hour before show time.Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 6th press performance
Final performance 12/19/04
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