The Gentleman Caller combines kernels of fact with lots of fancy. In this two-character play, Chicago dramatist Philip Dawkins imagines the early friendship of Tennessee Williams (1911–83) and William Inge (1913–73). Beginning as a rowdy pastiche of sex comedies popular on Broadway when Inge and Williams were active there, the play turns darker in a handful of well-written monologues that are highly engaging but don’t add up to a convincing portrait of either character.
Williams broke new ground in theatrical form and content throughout a career of almost four decades. Inge—the most commercially successful author of serious plays in the United States during the 1950s—is remembered for only four works. Those four aren’t innovative in form, but Inge’s psychological insight, humor, and authenticity ensure their continued popularity.
Williams was candid about his sexual orientation; Inge was straight-laced and reticent about his attraction to men. Both were alcoholic. When they met, Inge was a newspaperman assigned to interview the fledgling playwright whose The Glass Menagerie—then known as The Gentleman Caller—was scheduled for a pre-Broadway engagement in Chicago. Scholarly sources agree they swiftly became close friends; some speculate about a love affair. Whatever the nature of the relationship, it’s indisputable that Williams encouraged Inge’s theatrical ambitions, opening doors for him with introductions to an agent and the director who staged his first full-length play.
Dawkins’ Gentleman Caller is a memory play (like The Glass Menagerie) that riffs on themes from the two playwrights' works and lives. It’s narrated by Williams (Juan Francisco Villa), who introduces Inge (Daniel K. Isaac): “The gentleman is a writer, though he is, en fait, not quite a gentleman and not quite a writer.” Presumably he means “not quite yet a writer.”
Williams declares he does “not particularly care for interviews, for the simple reason that they remind me of things I have apparently said.” He’s submitting to Inge’s questions, he explains, because “this interview will include a cocktail—or two—homemade by a not-quite-writer, quite-confirmed bachelor.” During the interview, the two consume an astounding amount of liquor, which may be meant to explain the unrestrained banter and outrageous conduct that Dawkins imagines for them. They flirt wildly and soon are on the brink of romance. By Act 2, Williams has become the toast of arty Chicago, and Inge, the disaffected newspaperman, has been transformed, through his relationship with Williams, into a determined playwright.
Villa, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the youthful Williams, has the easier assignment. Tennessee is more colorful (both in the script and in history). Isaac is challenged with a role that’s underwritten and seldom believable. Overshadowed by Williams’ flamboyance, the Inge of Dawkins’ play is little more than a cipher who, from time to time, sidesteps his introverted persona to engage in credibility-defying acts. Soon after the interview begins, for instance, Inge springs at Williams, wresting the playwright’s trousers to his ankles, and attempting to mount him. It’s a moment of physical comedy at odds with the norms of the period and documentary evidence of the real-life Inge’s decorous nature.
The actors’ energetic performances and Tony Speciale’s fast-paced direction compensate for—or, at least, divert attention from—the script’s shortcomings. Scenic designer Sara C. Walsh gives the production an intriguing aesthetic, with columns constructed from stacks of manuscript, each topped with a period lamp. Her set, which cleverly mixes realistic and abstract elements, permits a swift shift from Inge’s St. Louis apartment to Williams’ Chicago hotel. Zach Blane’s moody lighting eases the actors’ transitions from the play’s main action to the characters’ internal monologues and back again.
Dawkins could have styled his characters as a couple of writers vaguely inspired by the foibles of Williams and Inge. By assigning Villa and Isaac the stage identities of these historical figures and setting them off on a cartoonish romp, the playwright allows what’s most provocative in his script to be overshadowed by questions of historical accuracy and fair representation of real people. Throughout The Gentleman Caller, ghosts of literary history haunt the Cherry Lane and loom over the hapless actors enacting this unlikely version of what might have been.
The Gentleman Caller, presented by Abingdon Theatre Company, plays through May 26 at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Mondays and 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturdays. For information and tickets, call (866) 811-4111 (toll free) or visit ovationtix.com.