Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tennessee Williams' Final Play: Much That Is Outrageous, Little That Is Austere

Poster by Noah Scalin

There are many pleasures to be found within the drug-addled fog of Tennessee Williams’ final and previously unproduced play, In Masks Outrageous and Austere, now having its world premiere at Culture Project.

This may not be the Williams of The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire, but I am happy to report that it is also not the Williams of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, The Seven Descents of Myrtle, or Out Cry—to cite three others of his late plays that I saw in their original productions, all of which were leaden and pretentiously thick with “meaning.” 

With Masks, which has seen a number of tinkering hands since Williams’ death in 1983 (among them, Gore Vidal’s and Peter Bogdonovich’s), the playwright joins such writers as Edward Albee, John Guare, and Tony Kushner, who—with varying degrees of success—have attempted to mix elements of realism, surrealism, and absurdism into their work. I, for one, think he was on to something. 

I give a lot of credit to director David Schweizer, who recently helmed the intriguing, moving, and, yes, surreal revival of Rinde Eckert’s And God Created Great Whales (also for Culture Project). 

Schweizer has done an admirable job of pulling together the disparate elements of what you could never call a linear or clearly plotted play.  Instead, guided by the director’s sure hand, In Masks Outrageous and Austere invites us enter a world that owes much of its logic to pharmacological enhancement.  If you can accept that, you are in for a most interesting evening, filled with mystery, intrigue, corporate greed, paranoia, and murder—along with a surprising amount of humor and glorious turns of phrase. 

As we enter the theater, we find ourselves surrounded by LED screens and two-way mirrors, along with a sound system that is pumping out electronic music and bits of seemingly random dialog, while several Men-In-Black types move robotically about, speaking into headsets.

I have to say, my initial response was that this was a lot of smoke and (literally) mirrors designed to cover up the obvious flaws in what would turn out to be yet another dreary late Williams play.  Yet in Schweizer’s able hands, these elements greatly enhance the experience. 

The voices and the music and the images with which we are initially bombarded create a representation of what it must be like to have Attention Deficit Disorder, an apt metaphor for a play in which the main character is described as having “eyes blazin’ with Ritalin.” 

If you make the effort to filter out some of the noise, you will hear the voices going through a checklist of props needed for the play.  Among the calls for martini glasses and baseball caps, you will hear this exchange:


And so it begins.

The play opens, and we are…where?  None of the main characters seems to know—not Babe, the “richest woman in the world,” nor her much younger current husband Billy, a “distinguished minor poet,” as Babe calls him, nor Billy‘s much younger lover Jerry.  They have been whisked off to some secret location, where they are being watched over by a retinue of those Men-In-Black types, collectively referred to as “Gideons.” 

Since the audience is not presented with much of a roadmap to understanding what follows, allow me the indulgence of constructing my own meaning.

I take it that Babe’s status and image as the figurehead overseer of her late husband’s super-ultra-mega-global business conglomerate is being threatened by the very existence of Billy and Jerry, and that the Gideons have been dispatched to see to it that things are returned to the status quo.  Keeping Babe in an alcohol-and-drug-induced fog is essential to carrying out the plan; as Babe herself points out,  “A firearm in the hands of the demented should not be disregarded.” 

Think of all of this corporate intrigue as taking place on the outskirts of the play, while the action within is filtered through Babe’s befuddled and manipulated mind.  Here is where things get messy.  But if you are willing to go along for the ride, there’s a lot of fun to be had, what with the goings-on of Babe’s inattentive attendant Peg Foyle, Peg’s hunky boyfriend Joey, and, especially, “Mrs. Gorse dash Bracken from the invisible house next door” (yet another bon mot from Babe, who gets to relay many of Williams’ better linguistic creations). 

It’s OK to laugh.  This is funny stuff. 

At the performance I attended, veteran actress Shirley Knight, who during previews reportedly had trouble recalling her lines, nailed them—or perhaps wove any hesitations into the personality of her character—and she does splendidly as Babe, striving as best she can to make sense out of the nonsense that has become her world.  And don’t kid yourself; sober or un, Babe is no babe in the woods, but someone to be reckoned with. 

The rest of the cast members do equally well:  Robert Beitzel as the neurasthenic Billy, Sam Underwood as Jerry (with little enough to do beyond standing around and looking cute), Pamela Shaw as Peg, and Christopher Hallday as Joey. 

But it is Alison Fraser as Mrs. Gorse-Bracken (what a great name!) who truly embodies the goofy logic of the play. In spirit a character from Alice In Wonderland, she wanders in and out towing along or chasing after her mentally challenged and libido-driven son Playboy (Connor Buckley).  Things always liven up when she is at hand, regardless of the tenuous connection between what she says and whatever else is going on. 

You can also sense Williams getting quite a chuckle out of setting the play in a beach house of the mind, where one can take a warm ocean swim and watch the aurora borealis at the same time.  And, given the playwright’s predilection for hotel living, you can imagine the hallucinatory coming-into-being of the Gideons (all of those Bibles in all of those hotel rooms!)  If that’s not enough, the director himself has added still more elements, including video appearances by Buck Henry and Austin Pendleton, as contacts from the outside world. 

By the way, the title of the play comes from a poem by Elinor Wylie, "Now Let No Charitable Hope," which ends:

In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file;
But none has merited my fear,
And none has quite escaped my smile.

It is the smile that lingers.  All in all, In Masks Outrageous and Austere is a boldly conceived and quite enjoyable theatrical experience.  And I ain’t just whistling “Dixie,” a remark that is relevant but which I believe I will leave unexplained.

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