Tennessee Williams

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur feature image

If you didn’t know that A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur was by Tennessee Williams, you might easily guess it. When the critic John Mason Brown reviewed A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, he noted that play’s similarities to The Glass Menagerie: “Mr. Williams’ recurrent concern is with the misfits and the broken; with poor, self-deluded mortals… If they lie to others, their major lie is to themselves. In this way only can they hope to make their intolerable lives tolerable. Such beauty as they know exists in their dreams. The surroundings in which they find themselves are once again as sordid as is their own living.” Brown might have written the same words about Creve Coeur, first produced in 1979.

Its two main protagonists are Dorothea (“Dotty”), a young teacher, and an older woman, Bodey, from whom she rents a space in a cramped apartment (vividly evoked by Harry Feiner as a warren of furnishings with a smash of colors). The other two characters are Helena, a well-dressed, determined woman with a plan to upset the arrangement and Miss Gluck (Polly McKie), an emotional mess in a bathrobe. Her mother has recently died, and she thinks her upstairs apartment is haunted and keeps dropping down to see the sympathetic Bodey.

Kristine Nielsen (left) is Bodey and Jean Lichty is Dotty in Tennessee Williams’s  A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur.  Top: Nielsen and Lichty with Annette O’Toole as Helena.

Kristine Nielsen (left) is Bodey and Jean Lichty is Dotty in Tennessee Williams’s A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur. Top: Nielsen and Lichty with Annette O’Toole as Helena.

Produced by La Femme Theatre Company, “dedicated to the exploration and celebration of the universal female experience,” Creve Coeur doesn’t have the more experimental elements of Williams’s late plays, nor even the framing device of A Glass Menagerie—although Creve Coeur is set in St. Louis, in the 1930s—but the delusions are present.

Dotty (Jean Lichty, founder of La Femme) is a struggling schoolteacher who rents space in a cramped apartment as she’s waiting for something better to turn up, specifically a phone call from Frank Ellis, the flashy high school principal who has taken her out.

Bodey (Kristine Nielsen), the landlady, is a dynamo who cooks, sympathizes and tries to interest Dotty in her brother, Buddy. Bodey has planned a regular Sunday outing for Creve Coeur, where there’s an amusement park, and she hopes Dotty will go. Buddy will be there.

Dotty knows that Bodey is playing matchmaker, despite Bodey’s denials, and she tries to emphasize her lack of interest in Buddy: “He simply isn’t a type that I can respond to…In a romantic fashion, honey. And to me, romance is—essential.” Fans of Williams can foretell there’s going to be heartbreak (crève-coeur is French for “heartbreak”), even if Dotty is shrewd enough to see past Bodey’s machinations, in Williams’s lyrical description of a grim future: “You’ve been deliberately plotting to marry me off to your brother so that my life would just be one long Creve Coeur picnic, interspersed with knockwurst, sauerkraut—hot potato salad dinners.”

Nielsen with Polly McKie as Miss Gluck. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

Nielsen with Polly McKie as Miss Gluck. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

In spite of the lyricism, though, Williams’s extended back-and-forth between the two women feels laborious, and director Austin Pendleton, who does a fine job otherwise, makes a crucial mistake by having Bodey read a notice in the newspaper and throw it to the ground, unnoticed by Dotty; you can almost predict in the first moments that the paper has an engagement announcement involving Ellis. The action hangs like an albatross on the already repetitious dialogue of the first half.

Things pick up when Helena arrives. Annette O’Toole is a smartly dressed social climber who teaches at Dotty’s school; she has found an apartment but needs Dotty to share expenses. It’s the clash between Helena and Bodey that provides the interest.

From the start, the elegant, supercilious Helena is thwarted by Nielsen’s tough broad, and you can’t help but root for Bodey as she prevents the pushy intruder from walking all over her—even suggesting a possible physical opposition. Nielsen expertly navigates the kindness, toughness and self-delusion of her character while finding unexpected comic moments. O’Toole, too, though easy to dislike, makes Helena more than a mere snob; she is also a woman with dreams who is too proud to admit she needs a helping hand. Lichty charts Dotty’s slow disintegration of confidence and her growing fragility and frustration, but her Dotty never implodes, even when her hopes are dashed. McKie, in a part that requires little English but expertly accented German, excels in making the weepy Gluck memorable.

Ultimately, it’s the actors who refresh the tired themes of this late Williams drama. Williams fans who rarely have the chance to see his lesser plays in good productions will welcome this opportunity.

La Femme’s production of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur plays through Oct. 21 at Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 West 46th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $55–$99 and may be purchased by calling (866) 811-4111 or visiting lafemmetheatreproductions.org.

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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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An Evening Called Desire

The wonderful (and often weird) works of Tennessee Williams have graced the stages of New York City in a kaleidoscope of iterations. From The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, to his later, queerer works in off-off-Broadway houses, there has hardly been a lack of opportunities to see this beloved American playwright’s work come to life in our city. An interesting new addition to the menagerie of Williams' productions is The Acting Company’s Desire: An Evening of Plays Based on Six Stories by Tennessee Williams at 59E59 TheatersAuthored by six different playwrights, the short plays in Desire take a variety of approaches to their adaptations of Williams’ short stories, which he wrote throughout his career. The quality and composition of each vignette is as varied as the dramaturgical approaches, but overall, Desire amounts to an enjoyably mottled evening of play, all in the spirit of Tennessee.

Most impressively, Desire boasts a knockout cast. Every performer is solidly dedicated to their character and action, but Liv Rooth and   Megan Bartle stand out in particular. Rooth commands the room as Clara in Tent Worms and proceeds to dazzle with Anna’s frenetic energy in Oriflamme.  Bartle demonstrates an impressive range as a weepy fiancée, Betty, in You Lied to Me About Centralia and then as a curious sorority girl, Layley, in The Field of Blue Children. As Layley, Bartle delivers a sexually triumphant and revelatory monologue, which practically brought the house down. Indeed, Williams’ spirit is perhaps best communicated through the talents of this versatile cast.

Each short play varies greatly in style, structure and language. Beth Henley’s The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin and Rebecca Gilman’s The Field of Blue Children are both plot-driven, heavy on events and action, and aim to tell a complete story. Despite their structuring, these plays’ best moments occur when they swerve away from their plots to divulge into character development. On the other hand, Marcus Gardley’s Desire Quenched by Touch, Elizabeth Egloff’s Tent Worms, and David Grimm’s Oriflamme situate seemingly everyday characters within apparently normal narratives, but in true Williams' style, each story gradually distorts itself into a strange and otherworldly version of reality. Finally, John Guare’s You Lied to Me About Centralia is an adaptation of “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” which is the short story that inspired The Glass Menagerie. This short play rewards the audience with winks at the Wingfield characters and their eccentric dinner.

Director Michael Wilson situates each play in its own discrete style—in honoring the diversity of the playwrights—but blends their worlds together via beautifully choreographed scene transitions. Wilson also highlights Williams’ affinity for objects, which are so often laden with rich and symbolic meaning. His staging illuminates important objects such as Anna’s swishy red evening gown (Oriflamme), Richard Miles’ coffin-like violin case (The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin), Jim’s glass figurine (You Lied to Me About Centralia), and Grand’s paper bag lunch (Desire Quenched By Touch). One thing the overall production lacked was a Williams-esque rawness: its staging and design were quite safe, lacking some of the grit and strangeness that often pervades Williams' writing, but is often ignored and polished over.

Undeniably, the cast and production is well-rehearsed and everything runs smoothly and professionally; but perhaps a little more impromptu wildness and odd eccentricities would have raised the stakes on its effect. In any case, Desire is a most welcome addition to the Tennessee Williams performance repertoire, and these short plays add flourish to the posthumous portrait of this strange and beloved author.

Desire: An Evening of Plays Based on Six Stories by Tennessee Williams plays through through Oct. 10 as part of the 5A Season at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St. between Park and Madison Aves.) in Manhattan. Evening performances are on Thursday at 7 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday. Single tickets are $70 ($49 for 59E59 members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.

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