Posts Tagged ‘Tennessee Williams’

Review – In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel – Charing Cross Theater

April 14, 2016

Tennessee Williams, as the creator of a body of plays, is … interesting. Streetcar, Glass Menagerie and … well. A long tail. He proved his ability to capture the delicate workings of the inner psyche and the unspoken passions, especially of women, in 1950s America … and then continued writing for a very long time afterwards. This play was written (and set) in 1969, and it is from the era when Tennessee Williams was no longer writing hits.

The plot is fairly small: Miriam, the wife (Linda Marlowe) of an American artist (David Whitworth) is hanging around in the bar of a Tokyo hotel where her husband has taken up residence and is creating paintings in his room. They’ve been married for decades, and she seems to loathe him; she talks about wanting to be free from him, plays with the poison pill she carries with her, and fondles the crotch of the barman (Andrew Koji) while addressing the audience about her sexual appetite. The effect is gross and jarring, and compares poorly with the examinations of late-life relationships provided by Strindberg. Miriam is a cartoon, her husband’s artistic focus unbelievable; it all comes off like it’s Williams’ attempts to examine his own sexuality by cloaking it in his characters.

The three dimensionality of the characters is destroyed by both the clunky dialogue and its painful delivery. I found myself wondering to what extent the actors simply hadn’t been given time to rehearse, and to what extent the actors could just not find a damned thing to work with. I cringed at both of the leads’ line delivery: while I understand Miriam has to address the audience (or someone) in some of her ramblings, why in the world Whitworth turned to faced us midpoint in a conversation with Miriam just stumped me. It was like they were reading off of teleprompters – no feelings of actual humans, just a need to get through the words and to the end of the show. I couldn’t help but think they thought the script was as horrible as I did. “Never worry, never fear, one day you’d meet a rich old queer” – why in the hell did Williams think that was worthy of being spoken by one of his characters? It didn’t even make sense in context. It was like he had a lot of unpacking to do about his own life and was making his characters hash it out, but, my God, with the racism and cultural superiority of a 1960s American so fully on display I just wanted to run around the auditorium and apologize to everyone.

Urgh. This show once again reaffirms my belief that the works of Tennessee Williams need not all be taken in, as there are many cuckoos squawking in his literary nest. This particular one should have been tipped over the edge long before it was due to hatch as a favor to us all.

(This review is for the opening night performance at the Charing Cross Theatre, which took place on Monday, April 10th, 2015. It continues through May 14th.)

Review – The Fat Man’s Wife – Canal Cafe Theater

February 18, 2014

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.)

Review – The Hotel Plays (Tennessee Williams’ Green Eyes, The Travelling Companion, Sunburst) – Defibrillator at Grange Holborn Hotel

October 9, 2012

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.)

Review – Spring Storm – National Theatre

March 31, 2010

Spring Storm, currently on at the National, was written by Tennessee Williams in college and then apparently forgotten for decades. I’m a big Williams fan and was curious about seeing a play by him I’d never heard of before. As it turns out, it’s a very clear introduction into many of the Williams types: the desperate and lonely; a woman in touch with her sexuality; a man in love with his masculinity; a man not so in touch with his masculinity; the domineering mother. The plot centers around two young men and two young women; both of the men want the prettier of the two women (Heavenly, played by Liz White); both girls fear becoming old maids; all of them have issues with wanting different things than what “society” has chosen for them.

And, other than that, my thought is that this mostly should have stayed as a school exercise, or really only be seen by hard-core Williams fans. The script is both thin and ham-fisted, and the characters mostly cardboardy (an effect highlighted by Jacqueline King as mother Esmerelda, as her farcical acting at the end of the play made me think Widow Twankey was about to make an entrance); the only one who seemed to have emotional depth was the maiden aunt (Joanna Bacon), who could have been a nothing but somehow seemed very reasonably like a woman who had played the cards life had dealt her with grace.

The actors mostly handled the material well; it’s rough being stuck with quoting Strindberg’s philosophy on stage, but in the more physical scenes, like when Heavenly was being encouraged to elope by her muscley, greasy boyfriend Dick Miles (subtle name, eh? -played Michael Thomson), it seemed very realistic, like the kind of scene you might have seen if you stuck your head around the corner at a garden party. Some of the dialogue was good (“Why must you attribute such awful motives to people?” “Because I know them”), but then some horrible clunky moment would come along (rich boy Arthur – Michael Malarkey – grabbing homely girl Hertha’s-Anna Tolputt’s- boobs and going, “This is life!”) and I cringed in my seat. I can forgive the accents wandering all over the South, American, and even the Atlantic Ocean, but I can’t forgive a line like “Every time I touched you would be like dipping my hands in her blood.” Williams was a callow young thing when he wrote this play, and its attraction toward “the obvious” is painful, just as much as the voiceover that opened and closed the scenes by giving a description of the set. I don’t need that any more than I needed to hear Bertha’s scream when Arthur described it in his memory; I can create better in my imagination. While this was an entertaining and educational night, and not horrible by far, unfortunately the play isn’t very good – not exactly “one of those tragic not-quites” (as Arthur describes himself) but nearly, and not worth the 28 quid I shelled out for tickets. You have been warned.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, March 31st, 2010. It continues through June 12th.)

Review – the James Earl Jones’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” – Novello Theatre

November 27, 2009

In a year full of mega-hype shows, the only one I really got excited about was the “all black” production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. There’s a lot of reasons why this wet my whistle way more than any star-crossed Hamlet. First, a cast with nothing but African-American (and Afro-Carribean) actors – my God, haven’t I been waiting for that for a long time! And (second) they were in a show by my favorite American playwright! And (third) in a play by this author that I’d never seen before! AND AND AND (fourth) with Voice of Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones, in a starring role! Woo! No way was I missing this!

Of course, with big names like Jones and Phylicia Rashad, tickets weren’t going to be cheap – when they finally went on sale I dickered and dickered, trying to find some I could manage. At last I found a deal to get £10 off seats during previews, so I took £20 seats in the Grand Balcony and felt lucky to find them. (I actually got my seats on Lastminute.com, FYI.) And, as it turns out, the Grand Balcony views were just fine, even though the actors were rather small – but since most of the action was centered on the stage, once the woman in front of me finally sat back in her chair, I could see everything.

HOWEVER (note to management) the Novello had SOME NERVE letting about 20 teenagers in 15 minutes into the show, in a dialogue heavy scene that was UTTERLY DISTURBED by all of the clomping and “excuse me’s” and standing up et cetera. The show started late as it was; LATE ARRIVALS SHOULD NOT BE SEATED UNTIL THE INTERVAL. Teach them right and they’ll remember next time; the Novello owes it to the rest of us to respect our right to enjoy the tickets we paid for and showed up on time to use.

The plot is as follows (no major spoilers): married couple Maggie (Sanaa Lathan) – born poor and desperate not to be that way again – and Brick (Adrian Lester) – an alcoholic former football player – are gathered at Brick’s family’s plantation house to celebrate “bootstrapped my way to money” “Big Daddy” (James Earl Jones)’s 60th birthday. Maggie’s trying to find some safe ground between her husband, who doesn’t love her anymore but whom she loves desperately, and Brick’s brother and sister-in-law, who are scheming to remove Brick (and Maggie) from Big Daddy’s will and get it for their own huge brood of children. Big Daddy cuts his birthday celebrations short in order to try to get to the root of Brick’s drinking problem; by the end of the play, everyone’s dealing with the lies they’ve been telling each other and the compromises you have to make in order to get on with life.

While the trope of having this take place within a black family worked fine for me, unfortunately the acting itself wasn’t able to convince me of the “reality” of the story. The weak point was without a doubt Sanaa Lathan, who monologued for nearly all of the first act and left me looking at my watch as the minutes headed toward an hour and the dramatic tension failed to manifest. I can’t help but wonder if she didn’t understand the character herself, because she appeared to be nothing more than a sex kitten who wasn’t getting any. I certainly couldn’t muster any sympathy for her character, and found even less for the actress after listening talk unconvincingly about her (Maggie’s) time as a debutante. Afterwards, J and Amy and I all practiced talking about our time as debutantes, to see if we could do it better. I realize this was a preview production, and Sanaa had taken over from Anika Noni Rose (of the Broadway cast), but it was just bad and dull and enough to make me say to not bother seeing the show.

Adrian Lester, as Brick, was also new to the production, taking over the role from Terrence Howard. My biggest problem with Lester was that he just didn’t sound the least bit Southern. He sounded like he’d grown up in California. Well, no, this wasn’t my biggest problem with him – he also just seemed to be going through the paces, not in a way appropriate for the role of an alcoholic, but in a way that made me think he hadn’t really got into his role, either. Though he was generally rather flat – or silent – he really came to life in the long scene in act two in which he and Big Daddy thrash out just what has gone wrong with Brick’s head.

Jones himself tended to be a bit to comic and heavy in his role as patriarch, lacking the casual fluency at rudeness that the character needed to come together, but he was an expert at playing cat and mouse with his character’s beloved son – for me, this scene was the heart of the whole play and the section that made me not feel like I’d totally wasted my evening on a dud show. Unfortunately, Phylicia Rashad also failed to hold up her end of the sky; even though her Big Mamma is a lesser role, her upset at Big Daddy’s rudeness just wasn’t convincing.

I always wonder if TV and movie actors really get what it takes to make a role work on stage; this evening made me feel like, too frequently, they don’t. This seems to be less of an issue for English actors, who (despite frequently biffing American accents) tend to have pretty good training on the stage no matter where they earn their fame in the end; but my countrymen let me down on this evening. I just can’t think it was Mr. Williams; his later plays are often heavy handed, but this is from his golden era and I expected nothing but the best. I guess I’m going to have to go back and rent the movie so I can have another opportunity to see the text performed and see if Williams can be redeemed in others’ hands. Tonight, though possibly worth the £20 I spent, was too limp and unconvincing for me to feel anything but disappointed. The heavy handed lighting design (MUST we see the overhead fan every time someone has a “moment”), the pathetically literal sound design (Brick does not need to be accompanied by football noises while talking about his past glories) … it all makes me think responsibility for the failures of this show must fall squarely on the shoulders of director Debbie Allen. With such a long run scheduled (it goes until April 10th), I do hope the performances improve. Otherwise … wait until a better version comes by. This cat fell off the roof long before the three hour running time was over and it did NOT land on its feet.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on November 25th, 2009. Opening night is December 1st. A review for the Broadway performance can be seen on the New York Times‘s website. The considerably more positive West End Whingers‘ review is also available. I side with the Times on this one.)

Streetcar? Sold out? You CAN depend on the kindness of strangers …

July 30, 2009

The reviews for the Rachel Weisz / Donmar A Streetcar Named Desire are coming in, and generally speaking they are VERY enthusiastic. What are you to do, though, when the Donmar’s been saying for a month it’s sold out? Well, if you’re me, you keep checking (click the book tickets link and then look for dates marked “limited availability”). It appears that most of the seats that are open are far side seats (per this map, the 1s and 2s, 41s and 42s on the main floor and 2s, 3s, 44s, and 45s upstairs), but, you know, whatever, even though the view is blocked to some extent on the sides, since it’s the Donmar, the prices aren’t outrageous (£25-£15 for what’s available), so you should still be able to get good value on your money.

At any rate, these seats appear to have just opened today, so if you don’t want to just wait for standing day seats, I’d advise you to jump on them now!

September Theatre preview

August 27, 2008

This is the most shocking of weeks – I have no theater trips planned at all! That, however, is how the cookie crumbles when out of town trips come along (and no, I didn’t do Edinburgh this year). I do have plenty of shows planned for September, though … well, not nearly enough as I have an out of town guest staying for a week (with no interest in theater, as near as I can tell), but I will do my best with the time remaining.

These are the shows I’m planning to see (so far) for September:
3 September (Wednesday): Matthew Bourne’s Portrait of Dorian Grey – Sadler’s Wells
12 September (Friday): Wayne Macgregor’s Ignite festival at Covent Garden (this is over three days so I’ll just go when I can manage).
15 September (Monday): The Pinter double header at the National, Landscape and A Slight Ache. The Whingers didn’t care for Ache but that’s no surprise – they’re not major Pinter fans. Me, I love Pinter, and I like seeing two short plays back to back, so off I go.
16 September Tuesday: one of the Norman Conquest plays at the Old Vic. I’m not super enthused about this as I detested the last play I saw by Alan Ayckbourn (Absurd Person Singular, such a dud!), but it was an invitation from the Whingers so I said yes anyway.
17 September Wednesday: Zorro. This initially gave me The Phear, but the Whingers said it was great, so I’m going. (Actually it’s a bit of a surprise that they said it was great, since they’re far less enthusiastic than the average punter, but since they haven’t let me down yet with their recommendations I’m going to give this thing a shot.)
19 September Thursday: Small Craft at the Arcola. I suspect this is just a ploy for me to go out and get more good Turkish food in Dalston, but, whatever, the people at the theater don’t care why I come as long as I pay for my ticket (and I do like Tennessee Williams).
23 September Monday: Kamishibai theater at the Barbican. I like Japanese theater (this sounds like their version of Punch and Judy) and culture so I wouldn’t want to miss this.
25 September Wednesday: supposedly a trip to the ROH to see Callisto, if I can find tickets I can afford.
30 September Tuesday: Stevie Wonder at the O2. It’s a birthday present for my husband (and likely the most expensive night out we’ll have all year, which is why I’m bothering to mention it).

Finally: October 1st is Merce Cunningham at the Barbican, and though it’s not actually in September, I’m starting October with another long bout of being out of the country, so I thought I’d include it in this list. The last person I took with me to see Merce was apparently damaged by the experience (“Did you know it was going to be like that?”) so I’m being more particular and sticking to going with my husband, who, like me, thinks that Merce is one of the true grand masters of modern dance – a living treasure of American culture – and we are excited that we can continue to watch his already excellent art evolving in real time.

Holy shit, and I just found out that Autumn: Osage County, the single play I’ve been most dying to see for the last year, is coming to the National in November! Heads will roll but I WILL see that show!

Review – Camino Real – Theater Simple at Oddfellows Hall

November 5, 2005

(This review is reposted from my previous blog, and the show in question took place in Seattle.)

My sister and I are just back home from the opening of ‘s new show, Camino Real. He’s still there – he has work to do. Our day was pretty good, but we’re all worn out, and I’m making us cups of rose hip tea right now and hoping that the upstairs heats up. It’s cold out there and up there. Brrr.

The play was… incoherent. Technically it was quite good, and all of the performances were good, but … I really have problems with the script. I think it was probably done as well as it could be, but I just sat there not able to find the through line. A lot of people left at intermission and didn’t come back, so I know my struggles were not alone. I might actually read the script and think about it some more, as I’m not ready to condemn it, but it’s never good when I feel the need for escape and wind up hoping that it was really just going to be a one act play. It had those Tennessee Williams themes of “life is transient” right up front and center, though, and it reminded me of one thing: Must Move. Must start living the life I feel like I should be living.

At any rate, and here are my two lovely cups of honeyed rose hip tea, and I think it’s time to sit down and sew and natter for a bit before we call it a day. Challah french toast and sausages all around for breakfast tomorrow, and a whole day spent with my husband and my sister – I am looking forward to it!