The modest-sized hotel room cum theater features a wild-eyed tiger portrait hung over the bed, a 1960’s radio, and fourteen folding chairs. If it weren’t for the slick production design (by Chris Keegan and director Travis Chamberlain, who runs lights and sound while perched atop a hotel room dresser), the setting might suggest the sort of skits vacationing children put on for their relatives. But Tennessee Williams’ Green Eyes is not child’s play: it’s a whip smart romp through the boundaries of sex and violence, betrayal and fidelity. Written in 1970 but not published until 2008, Green Eyes played to sold out houses at The Bushwick Starr, as part of Target Margin’s Unknown Williams festival earlier this year. Now, under the auspices of P.S. 122’s Coil Festival, Chamberlain has remounted the production inside midtown’s Hudson Hotel. Aside from the obvious stunt of performing a play in a hotel room (light designer Derek Wright deserves a gold star for his work in this tight setting), the atypical performance space adds a disarming layer of playfulness not necessarily expected of a 30-minute psychological thriller that opens to a naked woman with bruises all over her body and a sullen husband demanding to know how they got there.
Williams never explicitly solves the mystery. Did the newlywed couple engage in rough honeymoon sex that the bridegroom has blocked out? Or did his wife sneak home a stranger while he drank himself into a stupor on Bourbon Street? Chamberlain takes pains not to paint either spouse as a victim, though they are damaged (and damaging) in their respective ways. As the tormented young soldier Claude Dunphy, Adam Couperthwaite brings a raw earnestness that creates sharp tension with Erin Markey’s more calculated take on Mrs. Dunphy, whose terrors are, perhaps, more deliciously mystifying. He is haunted by the horrors of Vietnam, which his new wife will not (cannot?) understand. Yet she is the one with the physical bruises at the outset of the play, and her demons are just as perplexing.
A three-part lecture series, The Kindness of Strangeness, presented in conjunction with Green Eyes at The Museum of Art and Design this month, contextualizes Williams as a member of the last century’s queer avant-garde. It’s helpful to note, for instance, that shortly after penning Green Eyes Williams publicly came out as a gay man. What is strangeness? Queerness?
Green Eyes is not a gay love story disguised in heteronormativity; this couple’s behavior is far from the norm. Remarkably, with Green Eyes, Williams anticipates by decades the inclusion of BDSM under the rubric of queer sexuality. That deviant desires exist across gender and sexual spectra is, by now, well-worn territory. Chamberlain skillfully takes Green Eyes one step further by locating the playfulness – the pleasure – in deviance. This is transgressive theater at its very best.