After seven years of living in the world capital of theater, I have to honestly say that my attitude toward seeing previously unproduced works of well known playwrights has changed. These days, rather than thinking there’s a work of genius waiting to be discovered, I’m more prone to thinking that perhaps the sleeping dog was meant to lie. I’ve been let down by writers as great as Eugene O’Neill and, rather notably, by my favorite Ibsen (Emperor and Galilean debuted 150 after the fact and will hopefully never darken our stages again). And, sadly, the same is true for Tennessee Williams. But then again, I found Ibsen’s never before performed (in the UK) St. John’s Night quite enjoyable, and the Tennessee Williams’ short plays performed as a part of the first incarnation of The Hotel Plays were pretty successful … sp why not head to a new venue (for me) and see how The Fat Man’s Wife held up some seventy years later? At the very least, The Fat Man’s Wife might give me some more insights into Tennessee Williams as a writer – and it was in a pub (hurray!) so I could join in what I was sure was going to be some on-stage drinking. And, in case everything went downhill fast, I consoled myself that it had a short running time.
The characters of The Fat Man’s Wife seem familiar … the mustachioed young playwright Dennis (very much seeming like a stand in for Williams – Damien Hughes), the shallow theater producer Joe (Richard Stephenson Winter), and Vera (Emma Taylor), Joe’s beautiful, middle-aged, frustrated wife. Vera is struggling to find a way to make her life meaningful to her – while her marriage gives her some social standing (and clearly money), she’s not married to someone who’s an intellectual equal. She’s also clearly has no sexual connection with her philandering husband. So what might make her feel alive? The attention of a handsome, sexual man like Dennis.
As a script, The Fat Man’s Wife seems thin. It’s not helped by Winter’s wandering New York-ese accent (seemingly lifted from Goodfellas, then forgotten, to be replaced with something far more general) or Hughes’ failed Southern speech (a mish-mash of speech impediment and Atlantean), which distracted me greatly but might have improved over the course of the run (I went to a preview). Taylor had absolutely the right look for Vera but didn’t seem to get to the crackling, steaming blood that ought to have been flowing right underneath her skin – instead, she seemed content to inhabit the peevish side of her character. But to some extent, I wonder if they only found what was in the script … if the fuller fleshed characters Williams brought so convincingly to life in later plays simply couldn’t be extracted from such a small plot. The moonlight (real!) shining through the windows (real!) of the Canal Cafe certainly helped – the whole experience was very atmospheric – but there’s never a moment where you feel like Vera is willing to give up her silk lingerie and penthouse apartment in exchange for hot sex on a grotty boat. With that tension gone, it’s all a matter of marching through to the end (while wondering if just maybe it was all a dream).
It seems that, to be a character in a Tennessee Williams play, you have to expect that your hopes will be shot down; but it’s not so for the audience. This play, however tantalizing it was, failed to gel; I suspect it was rightly left in a drawer.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, February 13th, 2014. It continues through March 2nd.)