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The Gentleman Caller

Juan Francisco Villa’s full-bodied depiction of Tennessee Williams elevates Philip Dawkins’ play about his relationship with William Inge to a whole new level.

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Daniel K. Isaac as William Inge and Juan Francisco Villa as Tennessee Williams in a scene from Philip Dawkins’ “The Gentleman Caller” (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Every once in a while the exactly right actor is matched with the right role and magic occurs. Such is the case with Juan Francisco Villa as the 34-year-old Tennessee Williams (before he became famous) in Philip Dawkins’ The Gentleman Caller. Looking exactly like the playwright did at that age and sporting Williams’ well-known Southern accent, Villa is so ebullient, irrepressible and high-spirited that one has the feeling one has met the playwright himself. With perfect timing for Williams’ verbal comebacks, many of which are taken from his own letters, quotes and diaries, Villa gives an extraordinarily three-dimensional performance in a role that has been depicted in other recent plays and one-man shows about the author. Some of the credit must go to director Tony Speciale for helping to craft this remarkable portrayal.

Dawkins, whose Charm had its New York premiere at the MCC Theater in the fall of 2017, started with the following well documented facts: Before the Chicago rehearsals for his Glass Menagerie (a play originally called The Gentleman Caller) began in November 1944, Williams returned to St. Louis to visit his mother. Getting wind of his return, the St. Louis Star-Times arranged for their drama critic, the then unknown William Inge, to interview him for a human interest story of a local native son about to make good. Inge then arranged to visit Williams in Chicago and review the play for his paper in December sometime after its opening night of December 26. It is well known that from these meetings, Williams arranged for his agent Audrey Wood to read Inge’s first full length play (Farther Off from Heaven) and was responsible for starting Inge on his dramatic Broadway career. Later on, they became frenemies when Williams began to feel that agent Wood and director Elia Kazan, both instrumental in his career, were giving Inge more attention than himself.

Juan Francisco Villa as Tennessee Williams in a scene from Philip Dawkins’ “The Gentleman Caller” (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

The further facts are sketchy. Some biographies report that Williams and Inge met nightly for two weeks after this meeting, others that they had a brief affair, and still others do not mention their meeting at all. What is not in doubt is that Inge’s interview including many inaccuracies was published on November 11, 1944. Williams referred to it in his obituary of Inge on July 1, 1973 but told of their first encounter differently than he had in his now published notebooks. Dawkins’ play has an already drunk and randy Williams visit Inge at the drama critic’s St. Louis apartment. As two gay men, the closeted Inge (who remained so his whole life) and the openly promiscuous Williams (known to be so by the theater community but not the general public) immediately hit it off and a double seduction takes place, partly fueled by liquor.

They both discover that they have shared difficult childhoods and still have poor relationships with their parents. They speak of their hopes, dreams and passions. Inge reveals how much he admires Williams but inadvertently admits that he has not finished reading The Glass Menagerie which had been sent to him. Both agree on how much they feel lost in St. Louis which has little to offer them. Inge reveals suicidal tendencies while Williams attempts to teach him to live for the moment and let himself go. Shyly Inge takes out the only copy of his first full length play and offers it to the more famous writer to read. Then Williams is bitten by Inge’s dog and he has to remove his pants in order to have the wound dressed.

Daniel K. Isaac as William Inge in a scene from Philip Dawkins’ “The Gentleman Caller” (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

The second act takes place in Williams’ Chicago hotel room several days after the reviews of The Glass Menagerie have made him famous. It is New Year’s Eve and Inge comes to visit having been tremendously impressed with the stage production the night before. In an effort to seduce him, Williams comes out of the shower dressed only in a towel. The famously reticent Inge is somewhat put off by Williams’ exuberant behavior and sexual advances, but is thrilled that Tennessee has read his play and liked it. They speak of their self-identities and their fears, Williams of his need to write and indulge his senses, and Inge the wish to be able to create a fantasy world on the stage that moves theatergoers. And suddenly, it is midnight and the men have to decide how to celebrate.

Dawkins cleverly works into the dialogue references to scripts they have both yet to write, Willliams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, and Inge’ Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Splendor in the Grass. Williams’ remarks include actual things he said and wrote which sound a great deal like his stories, plays and essays. In making the men diametric opposites, the extroverted Williams and the introverted Inge, Dawkins adroitly creates conflict in a story that might not have had any dramatic tension. Each act begins with a monologue by Williams setting the scene, exactly as he was to do at the beginning of The Glass Menagerie for his narrator Tom, making this also a memory play just like Williams’ own, and allowing him to tell us at the end how things turned out for Inge in later years.

Daniel K. Isaac as William Inge and Juan Francisco Villa as Tennessee Williams in a scene from Philip Dawkins’ “The Gentleman Caller” (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

The problem with this humorous, romantic and revealing play is with the depiction of Inge. The casting of Daniel K. Isaac as Bill Inge is problematic as Inge has been described as extremely tall which Isaac is not. Whereas Villa looks exactly like Williams in 1944, Isaac’s Inge looks nothing like his photographs which appear on the back of his books and online. Isaac (as well as Dawkins’ dialogue and stage directions) makes Inge so prissy, prudish and uptight that he isn’t a believable person. Obviously, most gay men were closeted in 1944 but this Inge seems almost afraid to live his life. As Villa’s Williams has all the best lines, Isaac comes across as the loser in their interactions.

The set by Sara C. Walsh for both Inge’s living room and Williams’ hotel bedroom is both artistic and distracting. Aside from the sofa bed in the first act which opens into a double bed in the second, the drinks cart and a desk, the stage is surrounded by a great many piles of manuscript paper topped by lamps. While this is symbolic of both writers’ prolific work on many versions of their plays, it gets in the way of the event we are witnessing. It is best to try to tune out the stacks which eventually recede into the distance in Zach Blane’s atmospheric lighting. Hunter Kaczorowski’s costumes immediately telegraph the laid-back and seemingly casual Williams and the fastidious and prim Inge. Christian Frederickson is responsible for the appropriate original music while Ryan Bourque is credited with staging the remarkable physical moments of the play as “fight director and intimacy consultant.” Ron Carlos is dialect coach on Villa’s realistic Southern accent.

Philip Dawkins’ humorous and poignant The Gentleman Caller, which is still running in Chicago in its world premiere production, is a fascinating and intimate view of two very famous American playwrights whose private lives may not be so well known to the public. While the depiction of William Inge leaves much to be desired, Juan Francisco Villa’s exceptional portrayal of the young Tennessee Williams is one you will not soon forget.

The Gentleman Caller (through May 26, 2018)

Abingdon Theatre Company

Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, west of Seventh Avenue South, in Greenwich Village, Manhattan

For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.abingdontheatre.org

Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission

 

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (555 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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