Tennessee Stretching

The opportunity to see two late plays by Tennessee Williams, one a world premiere, is a tempting prospect for theater lovers. Although the general judgment prevails that The Night of the Iguana (1961) was his last great work, there have been productions of the failed plays of the later years that attempt to restore luster to them. The Two-Character Play, Kingdom of Earth, A Lovely Sunday in Crève Coeur, and In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel have their partisans. In the same spirit, the ambitious Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company has put together a bill of A Recluse and His Guest and The Remarkable Rooming-house of Mme. Le Monde, both written in 1982, the year before Williams died. They are strange one-acts, and if they were by a lesser-known writer they might not be worth a look. However, they benefit from the inventive shoestring productions given them by director Cosmin Chivu and provide an engrossing evening.

Justin West’s set for each features junk: mounted animal heads, Cornell-like boxes and rusty radiators clutter the space; crates serve as chairs and tables. Buzzy TV monitors are used in both works, most unusually in Recluse and His Guest, which is set in “a far northern town in a remote time.” The TV monitors are less out of place among costumer Angela Wendt’s furs, greatcoats, and leather aprons and boots, which suggest a Game of Thrones era and a fairy-tale setting that jibes with the plot of Recluse. Into the town of Staad trudges a starving, penniless woman, Nevrika (Kate Skinner), to start life anew. She has trekked through forests and fields and avoided wolves. She is scorned by townspeople, but after an encounter with a wealthy but amoral “gentleman,” Nevrika arrives at the door of a recluse, Ott (Ford Austin), and insinuates herself into his life.

Quite apart from his desire to be alone, Ott has justifiable misgivings about Nevrika. For one thing, she talks to animals, cawing occasionally and bringing home a hen that lays eggs for them. Gradually, he adjusts to her company and finds her useful as she straightens his home, rubs his back and helps him bathe. He allows her to stay even after a letter of warning arrives about her. Skinner invests Nevrika with cunning and desperation, and Austin’s Ott is both harsh and floundering in the face of her growing affection. Her grooming him for an appearance at the spring ball in Staad foreshadows a Shavian ending.

The Remarkable Rooming-house of Mme. Le Monde is a shorter and slighter piece. A starving cripple named Mint lives in the attic of a rooming-house, where he is raped by the young son of Mme. Le Monde regularly. Mint (Jade Ziane) hauls himself around his upper room on hooks that descend on ropes, but the ropes are of varying heights, and sometimes he falls to the floor. When an old school chum, Hall (Patrick Darwin Williams) arrives, things turn ugly. Mint has biscuits (i.e., cookies, since the piece is set in London) and tea for his guest, who has stopped to service Mme. Le Monde (Skinner again, in a red fright wig) on his way upstairs. But the nattily dressed Hall, who is a confidence man, helps himself to tea and biscuits relentlessly, keeping the hapless Mint away from nourishment.

Willliams’s dialogue in the piece can seem like a high-school version of Joe Orton: Hall and Mint were educated together at the sniggeringly named Scrotum-on-Swansea. “At Scrotum-on-Swansea you were a notorious fag and bed-wetter, but reasonably mobile,” Hall recalls with a posh accent. “Now you get about only by swinging from hook to hook, like that historical ape-man swinging from branch to branch in the jungle.” The sexual frankness, arch dialogue and nudity are part of Orton’s repertoire, and, as John Lahr points out in Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, in 1982 Williams was working on another play, A House Not Meant to Stand, which “broadcast the influence of British playwright Joe Orton.” Clearly Mme. Le Monde, from the same year, also reflects Orton, but it lacks the comic snap of the younger man’s work.

Mme. Le Monde ends grimly but satisfyingly. Chivu has used the TV monitors skillfully to replace a collapsible staircase called for by the script. These short plays aren't earth-shattering discoveries, but they have many small pleasures, not least for fans of Williams’s work. Playhouse Creatures deserves credit for spotting those rewards.

Two one-act plays, A Recluse and His Guest and The Remarkable Rooming-house of Mme. Le Monde, comprise Tennessee Williams 1982, presented by Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company through March 6 at Walkerspace (46 Walker St. between Broadway and Church Street) in Tribeca. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 24–28, March 2–6, and March 9–13, with a matinee on March 5 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $40 and may be purchased by calling 800-838-3006 or visiting PlayhouseCreatures.org.

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