This has been a good year for me and Tennessee Williams … at least, I had a nice time at the revival of Vieux Carre I saw at the King’s Head, which, even though it wasn’t a very good play, was still a good evening and interesting. Seeing that there was going to be a revival of three short Tennessee Williams plays (done together as “The Hotel Plays“), I wondered to what extent it would be an opportunity to revel in an atmosphere of bohemian Southern sleaze, and to what extent it might instead be like the unfortunate evening I spent watching his play Camino Real. Williams clearly had ups and downs during his career, and I was just too aware that a play that had never been produced in the UK could very easily be because it was one of his downs (think Emperor and Galilean).
But, well, there were a couple of other factors at work here. One was that there was three plays in total; another was that the entire evening was billed as 90 minutes long (and starting at staggered times so I could, say, be there at 6:30 and done by 8PM); a third was that it was only £20 (£10 in previews). The real kicker, though, was that the plays were being done in a hotel. Now, I love site specific work, but I had this feeling that doing Tennessee Williams in a tight little hotel room was really going to turn up the pressure and add a lot of extra zip to the plays, even if they were not his best work. Plus, well, with such a small time and money commitment, and three different shows … well, the chances of this being a good evening seemed to me to be very high. And, well, you know, I’d get to see some lesser known works by one of America’s most prominent playwrights. I managed to find a return ticket on the sold out press night, and there I was at a quarter til seven, in the lobby of the Grange Hotel in Holborn, watching the rain fall through the indigo blue light outside and waiting to be collected for the start of my night of plays.
The event started when a young man in a bell boy’s uniform with skin the color of a cafe au lait (I would call him an African American but I have no idea where he came from, though he spoke with a gentle Southern drawl) came and introduced himself – Charlie (Royce Pierreson), our defacto master of ceremonies. He was to be the thread tying the three plays together, although we did not know this at the beginning. He welcomed us, and told us that we needed to hit the toliets now as there’d be no chance during the show. We were then given a few minutes to take care of any necessary business, then followed our escort down the hall and up the stairs to our first play and the first hotel room of the night (they were all stacked on top of each other).
As I walked in the room, I saw a man and woman lying on a bed, both young, both in their underwear. The man (Matt Milne) had red hair and a lotus tattoo on his chest; the woman (Clare Latham) had hair in a kind of poof and smudged, thick eyeliner on – a bit of an Amy Winehouse look. She also had some pretty noticeable bruises and even some tiny scratch marks on her back – I wondered just what she’d been getting up to the night before that had left her so marked up! Based on the vintage of her underwear (though I think a zippered girdle would not have been sleeping wear), I judged this was set in the 60s or so.
As it turned out, the bruises I thought were an accident were key to the story, as they set the man off on a tirade about what the woman had done to earn them. I’ll not say much (although I disagree with the program notes that said this play was about the couple’s sexual fantasies – I think it was all reality based on the anger each of them was manifesting) other than that their relationship was tumultuous and physical in a way that was intimidating in such a small space – not to mention a little draining. Fortunately both of them were just stunningly attractive; but I was having a hard time buying Latham as the small town Cajun chick she was meant to be – her accent seemed choppy and the words malformed. Still, this short play (the star of the evening as this event marks its UK debut) got me nicely warmed up for the rest of the night.
Next up (literally up a floor – and after a ten minute wait in the stairwell) was “The Traveling Companion.” This was another two hander, about a small time hustler (Laurence Dobiesz) and the gentleman author (based on you-know-who – John Guerrasio) who’d paid to have the hustler come with him to a strange town. This initially seemed really clunky – the behavior of the older man just seemed pathetic and unbelievable (not to mention his bizarre Southern meets Brooklyn accent), the Dobiesz seemed to not have the casual cool (laid over finely honed hunting instincts) of a rent boy … but as “Beau” started processing his Quaaludes and “Vieux” started his practiced patter of seduction … the reality of the two characters started peeping up through the actors from somewhere below the script. I feel like Williams himself didn’t understand the inner workings of hustlers, even though he was adept at describing their behavior, because Beau never became three dimensional … but Vieux, with all of his sleaziness, seemed one hundred percent real. Still, this was the weakest point in the evening, though sitting next to the bed on which much of their negotiation happened did make for a very intimate experience.
Our last show (one more floor up) was “Sunburst,” with a very different situation – a person who’s been living in a hotel, retired actress Miss Sylvia Sails (Carol MacReady), is the key persona, not some people who have a transient relationship that has caused them to spend a single night away from home. Miss Sails is actually a character I found hard to buy into – I’ve never met anyone who actually lived in a hotel, and the whole idea seems ludicrous to me. But as a star fallen on hard times, she’s a perfect Tennessee Williams character – blowsy, faded, all of her dreams laid out on her dressing room table, and just a bit of the small town madam about her. Seeing this nearly utterly unconvincing caricature of a real human being laid out for us as if we were supposed to be she was anything we were possibly supposed to be able to relate to much less feel sympathy for … well, it seemed an insurmountable hurdle. Williams had jumped the shark.
And yet, shock of shocks, this turned out to be the very best play of the night, with only one false note toward the end (and some rather unforgivable stereotypes of Italians, shame on you, Tennessee). The tension was incredible as the Misery-like plot unspooled, and I became desperately worried about what might happen to Miss Sails and the few memories (and momentos) she had left. It was absolutely not the kind of overblown fluff I expected upon entering her boudoir and left me feeling rather exhilarated (I’ll say little so it can be a surprise for you). What a good night it had been!
While the quality of the writing of these three plays was mixed, I found The Hotel Plays a very worthy evening that, thanks to its intimate context, became much more vivid than the individual plays ever would have been on paper – meaning this is not just an outing for Williams aficionados but an engaging evening of theater, especially on a value received per investment of time and money. It’s only running for a few weeks and doubtlessly won’t be remounted, so get your tickets while you can.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, October 5th, 2012. It continues through October 27th.)
Tags: Carol MacReady, Clare Latham, Defibrillator, Grange Holborn Hotel, Green Eyes, John Guerrasio, Matt Milne, Plays in strange places, Royce Pierreson, Sunburst, Tennessee Williams, The Travelling Companion