nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 22, 2011
If you've ever wondered how Brick's best friend Skipper got his nickname, or what Blanche DuBois's young husband was really like, or what secrets lurked in the closet of Mr. Venable (Violet's husband; Sebastian's dad), well, Elysian Fields may be the play for you.
If you haven't picked up the allusions to three famous Tennessee Williams plays in the preceding paragraph—Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Suddenly, Last Summer—then I'm not sure Elysian Fields will mean much to you at all.
I have to admit that before I heard the premise of this new play by Chris Phillips, I hadn't ever given much thought to the lives of these three phantom presences in the Williams canon. But Phillips has chosen to bring them to the stage and invented histories and personalities for them in this work of revisionism: in successive scenes, we meet Allan, the tortured young poet whose secret homosexuality was Blanche's dark secret in Streetcar; Sebastian, the predatory monster sacre whose grotesque demise is the hook of Suddenly, Last Summer; and Skipper, the golden boy who was Brick's presumed lover and Maggie's rival in Cat.
It's an audacious concept that feels more like a basis for parody than the deeply serious treatment Phillips gives it. While Phillips certainly demonstrates his central point that Willliams's presumed self-hatred, at least at the time he wrote these plays (in the 1940s and '50s), forced him to make these gay men shadowy and ashamed, I'm not sure that much else is accomplished. By putting very familiar Williams characters like Blanche, Maggie, and Catherine Holly into his play, he sets up comparisons to the master that he simply cannot live up to. (Pseudo-Williams dialogue, in particular, is easily seen through.) And by showing or telling us things to "explain" these enigmatic men, Phillips is at once presumptuous and superfluous. Do we need to have Sebastian Venable's monstrous behavior explained? Do we need to see 16-year-old Blanche throw herself at Allan (and do we believe it)?
The play is directed by Phillips and John Michael Beck. Money has been spent on costumes but not on a set, which consists of two bridge chairs and a folding table. This lack of furniture is particularly problematic in the third scene, which the program informs us is set in a hotel suite in Philadelphia (but I didn't have any idea where it took place until I read that), and which includes a sex scene between Brick and Skipper that is as awkward as any I've ever seen, with Daniel Marks as Brick taking Aaron Hartzler as Skipper on one of the folding metal chairs, an unlikely (and uncomfortable) place for passion. Phillips specifies in his script that there is to be nudity in this scene, and there's not: just careful arrangement of Hartzler's bathrobe so that only bare arms and legs are visible—a very distracting staging. Phillips might want to consider just letting the words tell this part of the story in the future.
Marks plays not only Brick but also an older man who seduces Allan and a Mexican waiter in the Sebastian scene. Amanda Kruger has the plum assignment of portraying three Williams heroines in 90 minutes, and though memories of Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor from the famous movie versions constantly flickered in my head, I found that the lovely Kruger managed to hold her own. (Her Maggie is the best of the lot.) Scott Hinson as Sebastian and Miles Cooper as Allan complete the cast.
Phillips adds allusions to the famous plays in each of the scenes, plus an odd suggestion of Williams playing God with his characters (we hear him banging away at the typewriter as each meets his sad end). I wondered at the end if the more obvious route of a campy parody wouldn't have succeeded in making the same point in a much more entertaining manner.