Bent to the Flame - A Night With Tennessee Williams
nytheatre.com review by Ross Chappell
August 12, 2007
I don't say it often, but—ahem—stop what you are doing and get tickets to this show! This engaging, humorous, and pathos-filled one-man performance is without question the best solo drama I've seen in years. Doug Tompos's performance is mesmerizing, and he has created a remarkable piece of theatre that everyone should have the opportunity to see.
I often think it unwise for an artist to try to write and perform his own work, but Tompos is one of the few I've ever seen who actually demonstrates excellence in such an endeavor, both in his outstanding writing and in his brilliant performance as Tennessee Williams. Tompos has combined lots of factual information (such as Williams's anxiety after the opening of The Glass Menagerie and his fascination with poet Hart Crane) and imagined the evening immediately prior to his temporary escape to Mexico. Williams is in his apartment preparing for a reading of Hart Crane's poetry that he will be giving the following night. The beauty of this construct is that Tompos can break the fourth wall without destroying the realism because Williams is in his apartment talking to an imaginary audience as he reads Crane's poetry aloud and wanders through what he wants to say about it. In the process, Williams's heart and soul are laid bare in a way that could only happen in complete privacy, and the live audience in the theatre gets to watch every magnificent second of it. I have rarely seen a more believable theatrical moment than when Tompos, as Williams, wanders into a beautiful mental maze of pathos and genuine introspection, only to reach a lengthy pause at the end then look incredibly indignant as he says, "What the hell was THAT?" It is the best example I could possibly give of the dichotomy and beauty of his performance, and the audience ate it up. Tompos creates a mischievous, funny, intelligent, self-deprecating, anxiety-ridden Williams that is complete, three-dimensional, and wholly real.
Matching this fabulous performance is a script that is an amazing balance of intellectual pursuit, emotional catharsis, riotously funny observation, and genuine inspection of the core of what it means to be human. Discussions of such seemingly mismatched topics as God as "the passion to create" and the "spiritual gangrene" of remaining in St. Louis blend together to make a marvelous pastiche of the images from the mind of a poet and a writer. Tompos has also included the perfect selection of Crane's poetry in this script, and not one word is wasted.
Michael Michetti's direction is practically invisible, and that's a good thing. It means he genuinely understands this piece and how to make it live rather than just be presented. The staging never seems artificial or forced, and the pacing is about as close to perfect as you can get.
The period music that begins before the lights dim sets the scene perfectly, as do the props and set pieces which are simple, understated, and lend a marvelous realism and texture to the performance. Adam H. Greene's lighting is subtle and suits the mood changes nicely. It's especially appropriate because it supports imagined scene shifts in a very small space.
In the end, this show is a search for truth, and I'd say Tompos has not only found it but also expressed it more clearly and completely than I would have thought possible in such a concise and well balanced piece.