Thursday, May 28, 2009

On-Stage: Vieux Carre

It is probably the first play a Tennessee Williams biographer should read as part of their research, but it has not been produced on the New York stage in twenty-five years. Although Williams’s 1977 Vieux CarrĂ© might be infrequently revived, its biographical significance is undeniable, right down to the address of the squalid boarding house in which it is set: 722 Toulouse Street—Williams’s own address in the late 1930’s. Now Vieux CarrĂ© has the additional distinction of being the first Tennessee Williams play undertaken by the Pearl Theatre Company, as well as their last production at their current home on St. Mark’s, where it officially opened last night.

The residents of Mrs. Wire’s Toulouse Street boarding house are the dregs of New Orleans. Frankly, most are waiting to die, but one is still trying to find his place in the world. The Writer has recently moved to New Orleans from his native St. Louis, to pursue his literary career and come to terms with his homosexuality. Does that sound like any great American playwright?

There is plenty of raw material to inspire him in 722, including the shrewish landlady, two destitute elderly women, and Nightingale, an old consumptive lecher who seduces the writer during a moment of vulnerability. He finds a friend in the understanding Jane, a young lady from a proper Westchester family, who has been tragically diagnosed with Leukemia. Unfortunately, it is awkward for him to be near her lover Tye, a brutish strip club bouncer, who seems to protest too much when making crude homophobic remarks.

Williams first started Vieux in the late 1930’s, but he did not complete it until the late seventies with its brief 1977 Broadway production. Granted, it might not be Streetcar, but it is certainly a meaty play, prefiguring most of the themes and motifs of his acknowledged major works. It is also a great depiction of the Crescent City’s seedy glory, in which the promise of freedom is fittingly represented by Sky, a jazz musician.

Sensitively directed by Austin Pendleton, himself an actor often seen on the New York stage, the Pearl’s production effectively evokes the atmosphere of death and decay that looms over the doomed residents of 722. The wall-less set design also nicely conveys the claustrophobic environment and the lack of privacy experienced by Mrs. Wire’s boarders.

The cast is quite strong, particularly George Morfogen, who brings out the complex humanity of the problematic Nightingale. Sean McNall is also notably impressive in the role of the Writer, coming across as an intelligent, multifaceted young man, rather than a mere narrator or a stand-in for the famous playwright.

Like most of Williams’s plays, Vieux might sound depressing, but there is something reassuring about the dramatically messy humanity on view. In fact, Williams was a very humane writer, depicting deeply flawed characters, like Nightingale, with great compassion. It is definitely a strong production of a rewarding play, well-worth catching during its surprisingly rare revival (though parents should be cautioned there are distinctly adult situations and brief full frontal nudity). Its limited engagement at the Pearl ends June 14th, and look for the company’s upcoming 2009/2010 season in their new home at New York City Center.