Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“No, there was another world that Tennessee Williams knew about, a universe filled with special people who didn’t want to be a part of this dreary conformist life that I was told I had to join.” (John Waters, “The Kindness of a Stranger,” New York Times, November 19, 2006)
59E59 Theater’s critically acclaimed 5A Series begins the 2015-2015 Season with “Desire” described as “an evening of new plays based on stories by Tennessee Williams.” Divided into two Acts, the short plays are adaptations by six contemporary American playwrights. The “special people” celebrated by John Waters inhabit these six new plays with traits that are – as they were for Waters – salvific and often non-conformist and all of which tackle the fascinating dynamics of human desire.
It is difficult to “take on” Tennessee Williams and attempt to create adaptations of his dense text and rich writing filled with figurative language and imagery. It is especially difficult to appreciate these six adaptations when the obvious autobiographical nature of the original stories has all but been drained out of the adaptations. The audience is left to identify the connections between characters in the short stories and Williams’ iconic plays and often these connections are indeed revelatory and engaging. When the adaptations have more of a “period” flavor the results of the adaptations seem more successful. When the short stories are given a contemporary setting – as they are in “Tent Worms” and “The Field of Blue Children” the adaptations seem a bit flat.
The first, “The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin,” is an adaptation by Beth Henley of the 1950 short story of the same title. The violin case is an obvious allusion to Tom’s outburst to his mother in “The Glass Menagerie” when she continues to suspect his whereabouts after work. In Ms. Henley’s adaptation, Tom’s (Mickey Theis) homoerotic fascination with violinist Richard Miles is completely absent and Richard Miles’ (Brian Cross) premature death seems to leave Tom unaffected and merely provides an opportunity to again play with his sister Roe (Juliet Brett). These changes obfuscate the autobiographical nature of the original story and the autobiographical nature of the 1950 short story gets sidetracked. Young Tom Williams, his sister Rose, his mother (Megan Bartle) and grandmother (Liv Rooth) and the young man who not only broke hearts by lived with the family are ephemeral ghosts in Ms. Hanley’s adaptation.
Three of the short plays stand out in “Desire.” John Guare’s “You Lied to Me about Centralia” is an adaptation of “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” the story which evolved into “The Glass Menagerie” and is a wonderful character study of Laura’s gentleman caller Jim (Mickey Theis) and his girlfriend Betty (Megan Bartle). David Grimm maintains the setting of Williams’ 1974 “Oriflamme” which Williams wrote for his mother Edwina and Mr. Grimm’s play closely follows the short story giving it a sense of authenticity. Actors Derek Smith (Rodney) and Liv Rooth (Anna) deliver compelling performances. The third short plays deserves more attention.
The most powerful adaptation of the six is Marcus Gardley’s “Desire Quenched by Touch” an adaptation of Mr. Williams’ 1948 “Desire and the Black Masseur.” Questioned by Bacon (Derek Smith) about a missing person Burns (John Skelley), Grand (Yaegel T. Welch) defends his professionalism as a masseur and his personal honor by claiming (falsely) he has not seen the missing person since he last visited his studio. The official’s questioning is (as it was in the original short story) loaded with racism and homophobia – Grand is black, his client white and the interrogator’s prejudice leans toward the likelihood that the masseur might be homosexual. Mr. Skelley, Mr. Welch. And Mr. Smith shine in this piece and deliver the outstanding performances of the collection. They create authentic and believable characters that exude the mystery and magic and existential angst of Tennessee Williams. It would not be fair to reveal what happens between masseur and client except to affirm it is chilling and laden with important symbolism and relevant connections to contemporary issues.
Overall, these six plays by distinguished American playwrights lack the intense passion of Tennessee Williams’ writing though the three highlighted come very close and are outstanding contributions. The grittiness and the overwhelming despair found in the original short stories has for some reason been sanitized and the psychological trauma that accompanies being human succumbs to a sometimes uncomfortable blandness. Tennessee Williams aficionados will appreciate the allusions to plays in the Williams canon and will certainly appreciate the caliber of acting by the ensemble cast that easily takes on different characters with ease. Direction by Michael Wilson is overall proficient and serviceable but not always consistent from short play to short play.