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A CurtainUp Review
The Gentleman Caller

One should never work with children, animals or Bette Davis, who is both. — Tennessee Williams
Daniel K. Isaac and Juan Francisco Villa

Tennessee Williams and William Inge, two of the most iconic American playwrights of the mid 20th century, presumably met and enjoyed each other's company on a few occasions. Mainly talking about themselves and the world of the theater they both loved, they also toyed with the idea of having sex with each other.Maybe they did and maybe they didn't. No one really knows for sure. Two of those meetings however, have been entertainingly dramatized by Phillip Dawkins whose perspective is keenly observed through the brilliantly lyrical wit that would defineWilliams. Williams actually serves as the play's narrator, often stepping out of a scene to speak directly to us. This works beautifully. The play's only other character is Inge who formidably keeps in lock step with his adversary within the formal confines of the play. Williams' narration comes at us at a furious clip and with a dazzling ferocity that could easily make the unprepared a bit dizzy even as it delights the rest of us.

A memory play set at the end of 1944, the action in Act I takes place in Inge's garden apartment in St. Louis. Still working as a newspaper critic/journalist, Inge is thrilled to have been given the assignment to interview Williams whose play The Glass Menagerie is about to premiere in Chicago. Aside from the interview, Inge has his own agenda. Act II takes place post premiere in Williams's hotel suite in Chicago. It's New Year's Eve.

A mixture of fact and fiction, the play is at its best in the first half when it celebrates the unlikely attraction of two gifted gay bachelors who couldn't be more different. At its most observant, it makes clear how both playwrights created characters drawn from their own life experiences. In real life, the introverted Inge credits the extroverted Williams for being a mentor and inspiring him to write despite his deep seated insecurities.

The Getleman Caller has Williams and Inge talk through the heavy vapors of alcohol about their feelings and failings while imbibing, glass for glass — more liquor I suspect than do the sloshed characters in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. As they get increasingly sloshed, their presumed rivalry becomes inevitably revelatory. . . isn't that what is supposed to happen? The gregariously crass Williams enjoys baiting and berating the sexually repressed Inge. It's kind of a love match.

Whatever the dramatic liberties taken by the playwright, they don't seem so farfetched but are credible and cleverly integrated. Most imaginative is how Dawkins uses the most familiar characters from the canon of both playwrights to invade their personalities and behavior. It won't spoil anything to reveal that an accident finds Williams on crutches, or that Inge's dog goes missing.

Inge has undoubtedly heard about Williams penchant for promiscuity and hoped to not only be receptive but hopefully an initiator. Thus the first half of the play finds Inge awkwardly and funnily trying to be the seducer with the results that come close to pure farce.

Praise to director Tony Speciale for his work throughout but in particular for the execution of a physically demanding attempt at seduction that is as funny as anything in an old Marx Brothers comedy. There is no denying that in The Gentleman Caller Darrow has investedhis own impassioned love for these two playwrights. Act I succeeds in its mission to amuse more than does Act II if only for its abundance of unapologetically farcical foreplay.

This Abingdon Theatre Company production has opted for untraditional casting. The decision by the producers, as expressed in a HuffPost multiCultural/HPMG News article, to cast actors of color to play white figures works better in one instance than the other. Korean-American Daniel K. Isaac, who plays Inge, and Juan Francisco Villa (of Columbian-descent) who plays Williams, have said the casting will “inform, enhance and deepen” the experience. Not sure exactly what that means but I can enthusiastically endorse Villa's delectable delivery of the many caustic one-liners as well as the unleashed sensuality that defined his every movement. He makes Williams come alive. I felt less comfortable with Isaac's assured, but not wholly convincing performance as the insecure Inge. He is at his best in the wonderfully playful sexual antics that find him trying to get the pants off and his hands on the nonplussed Williams.

Scenic Designer Sara C. Walsh has created a nicely impressionistic setting in which towers made of scripts serve as background for both the living room and the hotel suite with a king-sized bed serving as the centerpiece. That Inge and Williams get to do a little dance on the bed is hardly a subtle statement in a play in which subtlety purposefully takes a back seat to the conspicuously but also pleasingly obvious.

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The Gentleman Caller by Phillip Dawkins Directed by Tony Speciale

Cast: Daniel K. Isaac (William Inge), Juan Francisco Villa (Tennessee Williams)
Scenic Design: Sara C. Walsh
Costume Design: Hunter Kaczorowski
Lighting Design: Zach Blane
Original Music/Sound Design: Christian Frederickson
Prop Design: Deb Gaquette
Fight Direction/Intimacy Consultant: Ryan Bourque
Production Stage Manager: Lily Perlmutter
Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes including intermission
Abingdon Theatre Company at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street
Performances: Monday at 7 pm, Tuesdays - Saturdays at 8 pm with matinees Saturday at 3 pm.
From 05/05/18 Opened 05/10/18 Ends 05/26/18
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 05/09/18

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