nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 24, 2009
"There's no defense against truth," says Mrs. Wire, the crazed landlady ("witch," another character calls her) who runs the dilapidated boarding house at 722 Toulouse Street in the French Quarter in New Orleans where Tennessee Williams's astonishing, near-valedictory play Vieux Carre takes place. That line pulled me up short when I heard it: here, so concisely, is the crux of the Williams oeuvre: no matter how forceful or fanciful the illusions we cling to, in the end truth, like gravity, always wins.
The Pearl Theatre Company, wrapping up their 25th season, is giving audiences a chance to savor and ponder and wrap themselves up in this lesser known Williams piece. It turns out to be a shiny diamond that somehow got overlooked, hovering as it was in the shadow of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire and those other famous plays. Do not miss your chance to see it, in an affecting production that's been brilliantly staged by Austin Pendleton.
You'll meet Mrs. Wire, in the formidable person of Pearl veteran Carol Schultz, giving what feels like the performance of her career as this daft almost-heroine who is part Amanda Wingfield, part Violet Venable, and part Williams himself, I guess, clinging tenaciously to past and present and surviving because she knows the truth about the truth.
Living in her house are an array of quintessential Williams characters who feel familiar and yet feel more nakedly raw and real than ever before because the intimacy of this admittedly autobiographical memory play combined with the intimacy of the Pearl space make them so. The hero is a version of the playwright himself, circa 1940, here called "The Writer" and played impeccably by Sean McNall as a sensualist and artist on the brink of finding himself and bursting out of a self-imposed cocoon. Sharing the attic with this young writer are an aging painter, Mr. Nightingale, dying of TB or something similar but still prowling the streets of the Quarter in search of companionship, craving the touch of another man; he becomes a kind of mentor to our hero. George Morfogen captures the brave gallantry of Nightingale and the obvious pathos in a performance of great delicacy and beauty that made me think more than once of Blanche DuBois, older and male, but still desperately trying to hoist paper lanterns over the garish light of reality.
Across the hall is Jane Sparks, a lady from New Rochelle who is currently shacked up with a gigolo whose name, improbably, is Tye McCool (Williams goes for broke with symbolism here). Rachel Botchan shows us a Jane who is at the end of her rope, desperately clawing for one more inch to pull herself away from the facts of her situation. Joseph Collins's Tye, whose "day job" (at night) is working as a barker at a strip show, is every blatantly sexual character Williams ever wrote wrapped into a brawny package.
Hovering around the edges are two old women who are perfectly described (on the back cover of the New Directions edition of the play) as "politely starving in the garret"—Beth Dixon and Pamela Payton-Wright make them flesh and blood, even if these women have too little of either left on their decaying bodies. Nursie, whose exact relationship to Mrs. Wire is never quite clear, though she seems to be some kind of retainer, is brought memorably to life by Claudia Robinson—the one clear-eyed soul in this establishment who has not buckled under to loneliness.
Finally, there is Sky (another symbolic name!), a handsome young drifter who appears out of nowhere and may be The Writer's salvation or his ruination or both. He's exactly what Tom says the Gentleman Caller is in The Glass Menagerie: "the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for." Christian Pedersen embodies this idea to a T.
Vieux Carre—a set of character studies unfolding like a dream—is vintage Williams: funny, provocative, violent, poetic. Pendleton's production feels well-nigh flawless, featuring a wondrous set by Harry Feiner that puts fragments of the characters' rooms (and lives) on a single level on the stage yet manages to evoke the weightlessness and vertigo of a spiraling staircase. Costumes (Barbara A. Bell), lighting (Stephen Petrilli), and sound (Jane Shaw) all work in tandem to further enhance the mood and milieu.
Very possibly the most beautiful play on stage in New York City right now, Vieux Carre is a treat for Williams fans and theatre fans of every stripe. Do not miss it.