More by Tenn

By: Peter Filichia

It took me 42 years to see 20 of Tennessee Williams' plays but I've seen 13 more in the last six months, most of which had never been produced before. We're in a much-deserved Williams renaissance age: I saw eight one-acters that the Hartford Stage produced in the fall, cleverly entitled Eight by Tenn, and now I'm seeing five more in Five by Tenn at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Four years ago, while Nick Moschovakis and David Roessel were at the University of Texas at Austin doing research on Williams' poetry, they happened upon 15 of his plays that hadn't been published or mounted. They knew enough to go and see Michael Kahn, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C., who's considered to be the premier interpreter of Williams in this country. Kahn read the works and was intrigued enough by three of them to consider productions. Meanwhile, composer Lee Hoiby, who provided the incidental music for Kahn's production of Summer and Smoke, said that he had an unproduced play that Williams had given him. Kahn read and liked that one, too, and when he remembered a play that Williams had written for TV in 1970, he suddenly had five by Tenn.

While Hartford framed its evening with Williams working in a shoe warehouse and imagining characters who'd fill the various styles of shoes in the boxes he was shelving, Kahn takes a more direct approach: Jeremy Lawrence plays Williams (there is a resemblance) sitting at a typewriter and pecking out a play but interrupting himself to address the audience. (What he says is from Williams' own journals.)

After telling us that he was once a movie theater usher, Williams ushers in "These Are the Stairs You Got to Watch," about two of his colleagues. Carl Meagre (!) has been on the job for 10 years while "Boy" is experiencing his first day. We learn that a theater need not be a drive-in to be a passion pit, for there have been some dirty-doings going on in the mezzanine. The play, written in the early '40s, would have caused a scandal had it been produced then -- not only because Carl alleges that his boss is homosexual but also because he suggests that, on the screen, Joan Bennett is eating a piece of celery as if she's fellating it. While they're watching her do that, a girl bolts past them to the balcony; this leads to an all-out conflict between the boss and Carl, who explodes and quits. That leaves Boy to deal with another seductive young woman. Will he give in and let her have what she wants? This is certainly not a great play but it's a convincing one.

Williams then reminisces how he was called a sissy during his youth and how he was dominated by his mother. This provides a good introduction to "Escape," which he wrote in the late '30s. Williams' stand-in is Donald, whom he describes as a "thin, sensitive youth" living in a summer cottage with his mother. Mrs. Fenway is in a variation of Blanche DuBois in that she's a teacher, but here the youth who's her obsession is her son. She accuses him of being a dreamer, much as Amanda Wingfield would accuse Tom some years later in The Glass Menagerie. Donald, unlike Tom, doesn't go out on the fire escape but he does say, "Don't they think people who live in apartments need to escape from anything besides fire?" Like Tom, Donald goes to sea, though in a much more terrifying way. As the maid (an unrecognizable Kathleen Chalfant) watches from the window, she keeps mentioning to Mrs. Fenway how far out he's swimming. That he's committing suicide occurs to us long before it occurs to them. Very effective.

The best short play of the bunch is "And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens...," which Williams wrote in the '60s. We're in New Orleans in the meticulously decorated house of Candy -- that's a guy, though Williams mentions that the 35-year-old has a "face that can never look adult, a grace and slimness that will always suggest a girlish young boy." Soon after Candy brings home Karl, a merchant seaman, he slips into the other room and comes out dressed in a peignoir and a wig. Karl is repulsed and, no matter how sweetly Candy talks, the seaman not only won't offer his body but also refuses to give what Candy says he will settle for: friendship. The ultimate point of the play is that you can't teach a butch dog gay tricks, but what beautiful writing Williams employs in Candy's earnest and pathetic attempts to get Karl to love him!

After an intermission, we get a curtain raiser: "The Municipal Abbatoir," a five-page, late-'60s piece in which a third-world revolutionary commands a passer-by to do his bidding. And I mean commands: "You are my slave," he tells the frightened man, and that does the trick -- or so it seems. When he's left to do the deed, the man doesn't kill the leader of the parade that's passing by but cheers him instead. It's a rare Williams political tract and one can only wish that the author had continued working with these characters.

Following Williams' remark that "People who come close to cracking -- these are my people," we meet two of them, simply called One (Chalfant) and Two (Thomas Jay Ryan), in "I Can't Imagine Tomorrow." The fact that "we finish each other's sentences" is considered the ultimate indication of love, and maybe it is: Two has trouble finishing his sentences because of a speech defect but One is able to conclude what he means. This goes on day after day after day after day as the two perform an inadvertent ritual in which they play cards and do a few other things ad infinitum. One does make some pungent observations. For instance, she says that "old women crowd around TV as if they got their blood and oxygen from it." She also accuses Two of "not being able to look into the eyes of another person." True, but the man who wrote these characters was definitely able to do so. And what valid observations are One's "Time is a big broom sweeping us out of the way" and "Repetition doesn't make security; it just gives a feeling of it."

Kahn provides all of these pieces with realistic but never mannered staging. His contributions are subtle but considerable. A couple of examples: In "Escape," Mrs. Fenway -- portrayed by Joan Van Ark, who does not look 40 years older than the actress I saw play Corie in the national tour of Barefoot in the Park with Myrna Loy and Richard Benjamin -- asks Donald if he's fallen in love. The script has him say "No" with no stage direction whatsoever, but Kahn has Cameron Folmar pause long and moodily before saying it, making us wonder later if that was a reason for his suicide. In Queens, there's a moment where Candy begs Karl to slow-dance with him. Kahn has Myk Watford stand still as Cameron Folmar hugs the lug, but then Karl raises his arms to caress Candy for an awkward split-second before he drops them and returns to strict heterosexuality.

The evening concludes with Williams saying, "You may prefer to be told precisely what to believe about every character in a play; you may prefer to know what will be the future course of their lives, happy or disastrous or anywhere in between. Then I am not your playwright." By that point, many a theatergoer will be saying, "Oh, but you are, you are!"