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.
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 A 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.
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 Theaters. Authored 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.