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''Five By Tenn'' Is Not Williams at His Best
''Five By Tenn''
Directed by John W. Cooper
Time Square Arts Center
300 West 43rd St. 4th Fl.
Opened March 9, 2007
Mon., Wed. thru Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m.
$18 (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com
Closes March 25, 2007
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 12, 2007
Exploring a playwright's early works may be an interesting exercise for academics, but productions based on these efforts are most often disappointments. Which is why writers often burn such work or ask their executors to do so.
It seems that in 2000 eleven plays by Tennessee Williams were discovered in an archive at the University of Texas at Austin. Typed by Williams with emendations in his own hand, they had never been published or performed.
Two of these plays, ''Why do You Smoke So Much, Lily,'' a portrait of a schizophrenic girl and her overbearing mother, and ''Thank You, Kind Spirit,'' which involves a black spiritualist and her following (this play is woven into the other stories as a unifying thread), are part of Turtle Shell Productions' ''Five By Tenn,'' directed by John W. Cooper.
Despite an impressive performance by Natalie E. Carter, as Mother DuClos, who sings, chants and communes with spirits in the world beyond, both plays prove once again that dead playwrights are better served by letting their unknown works rest in peace.
The other three plays, ''The Lady of Larkspur Lotion,'' about a destitute alcoholic woman in a boarding house, ''Hello From Bertha,'' about a sick prostitute and the madam who is trying to get her to vacate her bed, and ''Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen,'' a two-hander made up of two long-winded monologues, are no better.
However it should be said that ''The Lady of Larkspur Lotion,'' which is believed to introduce a character that Williams would develop into Blanch DuBois of ''A Streetcar Named Desire,'' does have some of the irony and lyricism that characterize Williams' best work. And Rebecca Street is convincing as Mrs. Hardwicke-Moore, the ditsy blonde and faded Southern belle so dear to Williams.
The problem with these five plays is that they may contain the same themes that will appear in Williams' later work, but they exhibit little of the craft. In these plays, Williams gives his characters a great deal to say, but nothing to do. Their dialogue goes nowhere, circling around itself in endless repetition.
What's wrong with the prostitute and what happened to the one good relationship she ever had? Who are the couple in the room on the rainy day and what is their problem? Why does Lily smoke so much? Williams at his best gave his audiences not only half-painted portraits but full-bodied individuals, and he put them in situations that developed and came to a climax.
The Tennessee Williams in ''Five By Tenn'' is not the same playwright made famous by Marlon Brando yelling ''Stella'' or the tender and tragic gentleman caller scene. It is a Williams he never seems to have wanted on stage. Perhaps it was a Williams he himself wanted to forget.
With limited space and resources, Cooper does an admirable job creating the steamy sexually charged atmosphere of Williams's New Orleans. The small stage only adds to the claustrophobic feeling. And for the most part, his actors try to breathe life into the dialogue.
Cooper should be respected for his willingness to explore new territory. Perhaps next time he won't get pulled into the quicksand.
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