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The Night of the Iguana

Director Emily Mann has given us a solid revival of the 1961 Tennessee Williams play with Tim Daly, Daphne Rubin-Vega. Lea DeLaria, Austin Pendleton and Jean Lichty.

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Tim Daly as the Rev. Shannon and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Maxine Faulk in a scene from the La Femme Theatre Productions’ revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana” at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left”] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

The latest Tennessee Williams revival is the first major New York staging of The Night of the Iguana since Roundabout Theatre’s 1996 production. Emily Mann’s version with a great many well-known stage actors (Tim Daly, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Lea DeLaria, Austin Pendleton and Jean Lichty) is a solid reading of the play though there is little chemistry between the main characters. Also at almost three hours, the production seems long though it does not drag. Visually the production with Jeff Croiter’s impressionistic lighting is stunning though the set by Beowulf Boritt may be a bit too large for what is basically an intimate play. Nevertheless, the revival is a good introduction to a Williams play not seen too often and best known from the somewhat different 1964 film version by John Huston which gave Richard Burton one of his best screen roles.

Williams’ last award winning drama dating from 1961 could have been called “The Dark Night of the Soul” like many of his plays and has a classic Williams’ confrontation between a hedonistic man and a virginal woman (like A Streetcar Named Desire and Summer and Smoke) with a more balanced second woman caught between the two of them. One of the few Williams plays to be set back in a previous time, The Night of the Iguana takes place in 1940 at a shabby hotel, the Costa Verde, in Puerto Barrio on the Pacific coast of Mexico’s resort area.

Jean Lichty as Hannah Jelkes and Austin Pendleton as Nonno in a scene from the La Femme Theatre Productions’ revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana” at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, a defrocked Episcopalian priest, who has been reduced to leading groups for the second-rate Blake Tours, brings his latest group of 11 teachers from a Texas Baptist Female College to the cliff hotel of a friend Fred Faulk after a mutiny among his charges. His ladies are up in arms that he has not stuck to the printed itinerary and has been caught in flagrante with Charlotte, the one teenage member of the group who according to him has thrown herself at him. She is under the care of her butch vocal teacher Miss Judith Fellowes who has made it her business to bring Shannon down.

As it happens, Fred has died two weeks before and his wife, the voluptuous and free-spirited Maxine, is now running things as well as coping with his debts. Later that morning, destitute street artist Hannah Jelkes and her 97-year-old poet grandfather Jonathan Coffin, nicknamed Nonno, arrive to beg rooms on their own plan: she will do quick sketches of the guests and he will recite his original poems. Initially Maxine turns them down, though Nonno is actually too weary to travel any further, but under Shannon’s insisting, Maxine allows them to stay one single night.

Tim Daly as the Rev. Shannon, Lea DeLaria as Judith Fellowes and Keith Randolph Smith as Jake Latta in a scene from the La Femme Theatre Productions’ revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana” at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Fellowes attempts to get Shannon fired from Blake Tours, while Hannah and Maxine compete for Shannon’s soul while he appears to have yet another one of his nervous breakdowns as night falls and a furious storm rolls in. The title refers to the iguana that Maxine’s Mexican house boys capture and tie up under the verandah in order to fatten it up and eat it. It can be heard through most of the last act. Williams sets the mood of the outside world in 1940 by having German guests visiting the Costa Verde, obviously Nazis as they cheer the news of the bombing of London on the radio. This production has been slightly cut by reducing the number of Germans from four to two and eliminating their lines, though they are not very important characters in the story.

The casting is uniformly good although the interaction between the characters could use some more development. As the Rev. Shannon, Tim Daly is suitably conflicted and delusional in the manner of Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth. However, giving an internalized performance he does not seem to connect with the women in the play. Daphne Rubin-Vega appears to be the first Hispanic actress to play Maxine Faulk in New York which makes perfect sense as she often has to speak Spanish. She brings a much needed earthiness to the role which has often not received it in past productions. As the celibate and spinsterish Hannah Jelkes, Jean Lichty uses a light touch to create a woman in tune with herself and wise beyond her years. However, she also does not help create the needed emotional connection with Shannon.

Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jean Lichty, Tim Daly, Austin Pendleton, Alena Acker and Michael Leigh Cook in a scene from the La Femme Theatre Productions’ revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana” at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Lea DeLaria seems a bit too over the top as the butch and furious Judith Fellowes making her scenes more comic than they probably are intended to be. Austin Pendleton makes his presence felt as the gentlemanly poet who knows his days are numbered. As Shannon’s latest young love interest, Carmen Berkeley is able to play the teenage nymphet without doing a parody of Lolita. Both Eliud Garcia Kauffman as the bus driver Hank and Keith Randolph Smith as tour guide Jake Latta express world weariness without making that their only character trait. As the shirtless Mexican house boys, Bradley James Tejeda and Dan Teixeira who look like they have lived on the beach portray the insolence of which Maxine complains.

Beowulf Boritt’s all-wooden verandah setting with its symbolic three rooms is beautifully lit by Jeff Croiter but one wonders why sunrise isn’t coming up at the end of the play as the characters have obviously talked all through the night but the denouement takes place under the stars. Without being very dramatic, Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes immediately define each character from Maxine’s pink blouse of which she appears to be falling out, to Hannah’s prim dresses to Charlotte’s girlish outfit to Shannon’s rumpled white suit. Most impressive is Darron L. West’s realistic sound design for the coming storm. Kathy Fabian is credited with the many props which are needed to tell this story.

Tim Daly as the Rev. Shannon and Jean Lichty as Hannah Jelkes in a scene from the La Femme Theatre Productions’ revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana” at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

While this revival of The Night of the Iguana is not transcendent in showing us the redemption and atonement of these lost souls, Emily Mann’s direction is sturdy and substantial for a play that in its poetic excesses could go over the top. The cast with its five names is uniformly up to the task of creating this hot house environment that is so typical of Tennessee Williams. Visually the production is attractive in putting Mexico’s Riviera on the New York stage. While the pacing could be tightened up a bit to shorten the long running time, the play is always engrossing and absorbing without being languid or heavy.

The Night of the Iguana (through February 25, 2024)

La Femme Theatre Productions

Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call http://www.iguanaplaynyc.com

Running time: two hours and 55 minutes including one intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (991 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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