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Desire: An Evening of Plays Based on Six Stories by Tennessee Williams 

Mesmerizing play in which six American playwrights were commissioned by The Acting Company to adapt short stories by the master on themes of love and sex.

Mickey Theis and Megan Bartle in a scene from John Guare’s “You Lied to Me about Centralia” (Carol Rosegg)

Mickey Theis and Megan Bartle in a scene from John Guare’s “You Lied to Me about Centralia” (Carol Rosegg)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Having commissioned evenings of one-act plays by major American playwrights based on the short stories of Anton Chekhov and the sonnets of William Shakespeare, The Acting Company has now turned to the work of a native author. As directed by Michael Wilson, the result, Desire: An Evening of Plays Based on Six Stories by Tennessee Williams, is a mesmerizing work of one acts in which each author handles the original material differently and the brilliant group of nine actors, mainly Acting Company alums, get to tackle two – four roles each. Many give such vivid and varied performances that it is necessary to examine the program to realize that you have seen the same performer in a contrasting role.

While all revolve around the theme of desire, the most original play is John Guare’s “You Lied to Me about Centralia.” Based on “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” which tells the same story as Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Guare’s play cleverly constructs a sequel. In the last scene of Williams’ play, Jim, the gentleman caller, tells the Wingfields that he has to pick up his fiancée Betty at the Wabash Depot. Guare’s play has Jim and Betty seated on a bench in the waiting room. Jim has discovered that Betty did not go to visit a sick aunt in Centralia, but a rich uncle that her mother hadn’t seen in years. Apparently, Betty had hoped to get a wedding present from him that would make a down payment on a house possible. When she discovers that Jim has had dinner with the Wingfields, she becomes extremely jealous and abusive, hinting at the life that Jim can expect once they are married.

Megan Bartle (who also plays the lead in the Rebecca Gilman adaptation) gives a marvelous performance as a grasping, acquisitive and ambitious young lady. As Jim, who we have met before in the shape of various actors, Mickey Theis is beautifully understated and morose, thinking back on his cultured evening with the Wingfields, but making it clear he already thinks he has made a mistake in getting hitched to Betty. By the end of the play, we can imagine their entire married life looking into the future though we have only seen them for a brief time.

Juliet Brett and Brian Cross in a scene from Beth Henley’s “The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Juliet Brett and Brian Cross in a scene from Beth Henley’s “The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

The curtain raiser, Beth Henley’s “The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin,” based on the short story of the same name, also deals with the Wingfield/Williams family but earlier than the other story. Set in a small Southern town in the 1920’s, we meet Tom, age 11, and his older sister Roe (probably named after Williams’ real sister Rose), age 12. Living in their grandmother’s house, Roe is Tom’s only friend until she gets her first period and begins taking piano lessons. When her teacher arranges for her to play a public duet with handsome violinist Richard Miles, she becomes tongue-tied and withdrawn. This first intimation of awakening sexual desire leads to a sad conclusion, one which presages the withdrawn sister that one meets in The Glass Menagerie.

While the play is a lovely literal evocation of the original story, it ultimately seems tame compared to the other plays. Juliet Brett is quite charming as the young lady reaching puberty, while Theis playing the young and impressionable Tom is excellent as a bored but curious adolescent. Golden-haired Brian Cross is credible as the gentlemanly young man to whom both siblings are attracted. Kristen Adele, Liv Rooth and Brattle put in cameo appearances as the adults in their lives.

Derek Smith and Liv Rooth in a scene from Elizabeth Egloff’s “Tent Worms” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Derek Smith and Liv Rooth in a scene from Elizabeth Egloff’s “Tent Worms” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

The last play in the first half is Elizabeth (The Devils, The Swan) Egloff’s adaptation of a late Tennessee Williams story called “Tent Worms.” While the playwright has skillfully brought the story to the stage, it is one of those that seems like it would benefit by being expanded beyond the scope of the original as in this form it is nothing more than an anecdote. Reset in the present, “Tent Worms” takes place on the porch of a cottage overlooking Cape Cod Bay. Billy, a middle-aged writer and his wife Clara are in their last days of their summer rental. However, only Clara knows how ill he is and that this will be their last summer on the Cape. Billy’s illness suddenly takes the form of an obsession with killing the tent worms which are infesting the trees on the property. When he attempts to burn them out, the resulting tragedy suggests that he already knows the terminal course he is on. While Rooth and Smith are quite poignant in their roles, the end leaves us wanting more.

John Skelley and Yaegel T. Welch in a scene from Marcus Gardley’s “Desire Quenched by Touch” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

John Skelley and Yaegel T. Welch in a scene from Marcus Gardley’s “Desire Quenched by Touch” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

The plays in the second half of the evening tend to be much fuller dramatizations of more involved stories. The opener is from a much anthologized and controversial story by Williams, “Desire and the Black Masseur,” one of three stories in this evening that come from his first collection called One Arm and Other Stories. Renamed “Desire Quenched by Touch” by Marcus (On the Levee) Gardley, the plot has been recast as a flashback being narrated in a New Orleans police station. Anthony Burns, a young man in his twenties has disappeared, and Detective Bacon has called in black musician turned masseur Fountaine Le Grand, the last one to see Burns, to tell him what he knows. Grand’s tale is told in flashback. Burns had come to him to receive deep massage as a form of “atonement.” The sessions become more and more painful which is exactly what Burns is seeking.

Although written in 1948 and filmed as Noir et Blanc in 1986, the ending remains a shocker. Yaegel T. Welch is remarkable as the refined, urbane and obliging masseur willing to help his client find his relief for his expressed desire. Skelley returning as Burns has a neurotic intensity that completely captures the role. As the investigating detective, Smith is amusing as a suspicious, bigoted type who is sure he knows what happened.

Liv Rooth and Derek Smith in a scene from David Grimm’s “Oriflamme” (Photo credit: Heidi Bohnenkamp)

Liv Rooth and Derek Smith in a scene from David Grimm’s “Oriflamme” (Photo credit: Heidi Bohnenkamp)

Although many will identify the Williams story “Oriflamme,” dramatized by David (Measure for Pleasure, Tales from Red Vienna) Grimm, with Blanche Du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire, in fact it is a variation on the last scene of Summer and Smoke. Like Alma Winemiller in the longer work, after years of repression, Anna has decided it is time to break out of her shell. Anna, a department store clerk, has this very day bought a red evening dress which she has insisted on wearing out of the shop – her oriflamme, that is a red flag or a symbol of courage. Like Alma in the Williams play, she had gone to a public park near a fountain to see if she can meet someone and change her destiny.

As luck would have it she meets Rodney, a workman who is more adept at the ways of the world that she. When he is willing to take her red dress as an invitation, she discovers that she is not quite ready to throw caution to the wind. As Anna, Rooth gives the most detailed and richest performance of the evening. The versatile Smith, again partnering her as he did in “Tent Worms,” is both patronizing and skeptical as the amused client who knows she is in over her head.

John Skelley and Megan Bartle in a scene from Rebecca Gilman’s “The Field of Blue Children” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

John Skelley and Megan Bartle in a scene from Rebecca Gilman’s “The Field of Blue Children” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Like “Tent Worms,” Rebecca Gilman’s “The Field of Blue Children” updates the original to the present and sticks fairly close to Williams’ version, with some expansion. The fullest and longest of the six plays, “The Field of Blue Children” is set at the University of Alabama. Layley, a sorority type, feeling that something is missing from her life, has signed up for an undergraduate poetry workshop. There she meets the shy and awkward Dylan, a brilliant writer, to whom she finds herself attracted. Although she is engaged to the outgoing and popular Grant, she pursues a date with Dylan. He opens a new world of desire to her. Ultimately she can’t break from her proscribed path, though she continues to think she has “forgotten something.”

As the curious and unfulfilled Layley, Bartle returning for her third role is brilliantly subtle and understated as a girl who knows that there is something missing in her life but can’t quite figure out what it is. Skelley also returning for his third role is her equal as the diffident and reserved young poet whose head is turned by her attentions, but who has the answers she seeks. Gilman has added a witty and satiric scene with Layley’s crass and conventional sorority sisters, delightfully played by Brett and Rooth. Cross here plays the fiancé, the typical fraternity house type who is blind to the fact that he has competition.

In addition to Wilson’s astute and assured direction, the production team could not be better. The unit setting made up of wooden slats in the form of a collage by Jeff Cowie works beautifully for all six plays. David C. Woolard has turned his skills to creating clothing for these stories which require him to straddle seven decades. The lighting by Russell H. Champa helps establish the various time frames for the different locales and moods. The beautiful original music and sound design is the work of John Gromada. The wigs that help distinguish the different characters are the handiwork of Tom Watson.

As we approach the end of the unproduced Tennessee Williams manuscripts, it is a pleasure to see new work by the playwright filtered through the imagination of some of America’s best playwrights. While Desire covers a gamut of emotions from love to sex to guilt to longing, this new dramatic work is unified by its original author and its themes. Desire: An Evening of New Plays Based on Six Short Stories by Tennessee Williams is one of the most satisfying and moving theatrical events to be seen in New York at this time.

Desire: An Evening of Plays Based on Six Stories by Tennessee Williams (through October 11, 2015)

The Acting Company

5A Season, 59E59 Theater, Theatre A, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org

Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (455 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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