A Lonely Man's Habit
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
March 31, 2011
Jeremy Lawrence gives a tour-de-force performance as Tennessee Williams in A Lonely Man’s Habit. This searing, if murky, one-man play is the latest in a series of solo shows Lawrence has created from the plays, poems, and journals of the great Southern playwright. While Lawrence’s nuanced, impassioned portrayal of Williams is compelling, and he has clearly done exhaustive research, the script for A Lonely Man’s Habit never quite finds a raison d’être. It rambles beautifully and darkly through Williams’s stream-of-consciousness, but it turns in so many directions it’s ultimately difficult to follow Williams’s journey.
The play takes place in the final years of Williams’s life, at “maybe 3:00 in the morning…1980 or thereabout.” In a bit of business cleverly choreographed by director Jim Gaylord to fit the multi-level Cell space, Williams saunters down the stairs fresh from bedding a young conquest. He descends to his study, where he must face his “blue devils” of self-doubt and depression. He goes to the typewriter, but inspiration doesn’t strike. He crosses the room to his bookshelf and pulls down one of his journals, entering a world of memory. The evening alternates between Williams’s memories and his anguished bouts at the typewriter, striving in vain to write his next masterpiece. “God give me strength to write it even though it may not be an altogether Godly play—it will have in it at least a passionate denial of shame and a cry for beauty. I wrote that play I wrote it several times. And I can again…” he cries with determination.
Lawrence slides easily and precisely between past and present, between fact and fiction. Every moment, every emotion, every character in Williams’s imagination—from a worn-out waitress to the imperious Blanche DuBois—is vividly and exactly rendered. This is Williams’s life as memory play, but what is driving Williams through these memories, or why, is hard to say. Is he mourning lost youth and opportunity, or striving to write his next work? Does he have this angry bout with the “blue devils” every night, or is tonight different in some way? How does tonight’s journey through the past change him? It’s also not clear to whom Williams is speaking. Sometimes he is the entertainer, very much aware of the audience, as in the grandiose and heartfelt mini-scene from A Streetcar Named Desire. Sometimes, he is a lonely writer talking to himself in the dead of night. Under Gaylord’s efficient if not always focused direction, there are odd, abrupt shifts from one voice to the other that confuse the play’s purpose.
A Lonely Man’s Habit may be something cloudy, something clear (to borrow a Williams title), but it nevertheless has moments of emotional power. Lawrence highlights Williams’s frenzied self-doubt while capturing his dark humor. This is particularly evident when Williams breaks into scenes from his plays, or remembers his first love, Kip. Devotees will also appreciate the effortless allusions across Williams’s oeuvre, while neophytes will grasp something of his personal torment. It’s a flawed, if fascinating examination of Williams’s life.