Review: Uncovering Tennessee Williams’ Latest Curiosities


Once mortals become immortal, it’s easy to forget how dangerously they stumbled in life. This is certainly true of Tennessee Williams, who spent the last two decades but solidified his place in the American playwriting pantheon with his first hits “The Glass Menagerie”, “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. – After “Iguana Night” in 1961 – where Hilton Als calls “a kind of critical purgatory”.

But critics are not, at the most crucial point, a howling pack of wolves chasing weakened prey. They are the champions of the overlooked, the praised, the misunderstood. In this spirit, The New Yorker writer Als, who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2017, seeks a review of Williams’ recent works.

In “Tennessee Williams”, the second episode of the two-part New York Theater Workshop podcast, “Hilton Als Sunar” quotes three plays that were rejected in their own time: “At the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel”, from 1969; “Red Devil Battery Sign, ” which succumb On his way to Broadway in 1975; and “Summer Hotel Clothes” The last Broadway premiere in Williams’ life. It opened on its 69th birthday in 1980 and was met with so much cynical criticism that closed after only two weeks.

These plays are not exceptional in Williams’ work, as notions of masculinity, sexuality, or the divided self – but as Als points out, each contains a male artist character.

Directed by Als and with masterful audio production and editing by Alex Barron, the podcast doesn’t always fail to convey what we need to envision, with audio and stage directions.

The scene from “The Red Devil Battery Sign,” starring Raúl Castillo as the bandleader and Marin Ireland as a sexually greedy belle, feels too context-free to add anything. But each of the other games is memorable for its outstanding performance and gleams of beauty in the text.

The longest excerpt from “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel” at first seems like a stuffy exercise: an encounter between a fragile but sensual American woman (Nadine Malouf) and the Japanese bartender (James Yaegashi) she harasses. HE IS comes to life, albeit late. Reed Birney As her husband, Mark, an extremely drunk painter, she struggles to maintain her dignity and capitalize on her art. A fully lived performance, beset with fear and joy. (John Lahr, in Williams’ biography, calls this play “a fascinating examination of the perversion of his soul,” and he’s right.)

“In the beginning,” says Mark, shaking hands, painting all over his team, “a new way of working may be stronger than you, but you learn to control it. It has to be contained.”

Williams wasn’t very good at controlling his art, addictions, or emotional vulnerability at that point.

The other magnetic spin belongs to Michelle Williams in “Clothes for a Summer Hotel,” which the playwright calls a “ghost game” about Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. As Zelda, a role created by Geraldine Page on Broadway, Williams escapes the pitfalls that lurk in the women of Tennessee Williams: the gender and class masks and tricks that have made her famous for writing diva roles and often mock these characters. Regardless, Michelle Williams finds a person.

“Are you sure I fit the Southern young lady’s classification, Scott?” Zelda asks her husband (played by André Holland). “Damn Scott. Sorry, wrong size, it fits! I can’t wear that shoe, it’s too restrictive.”

Tennessee Williams also felt compressed and constrained by expectations. He was forever in competition with his younger self.

Als’ production does not convincingly argue for these late games. But it accomplishes what a critic should do when it’s his turn to rise – to encourage a close scrutiny of something we might otherwise have overlooked.

Maybe, taking the hint of Als, a brilliant director will find a way.

Hilton Als Presents: Selections from Tennessee Williams
until 31st July; horse and major podcast platforms. Duration: 1 hour 27 minutes.


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