Theatre theatre criticism

What if a new Tennessee Williams play came to light?

When I was fifteen I played Tom in The Glass Menagerie. It was an experience that opened the door on poetic language for me.

Cherry Jones as Amanda, and Zachary Qinto as Tom, in The Glass Menagerie
Cherry Jones as Amanda, and Zachary Qinto as Tom, in The Glass Menagerie

When I was sixteen I saw A Streetcar Named Desire in the West End. Claire Bloom played a fragile Blanche, Martin Shaw was a virile Stanley, Joss Ackland a sympathetic Mitch, and Morag Hood a sisterly Stella. Doors on acting — and windows too — opened then.

In the second year of acting training at Central in London, it was American plays. Even though I was playing Harry Brock in Born Yesterday, I was still among those who would revisit Streetcar in empty rehearsal rooms and practice yelling ‘Stella!’, and then, ‘Stella… Steeee… eeee….elllaaaa!’


I heard a story once from Professor Charles McNulty about how, unable to get into a musical next door, he stumbled into the very first preview of The Glass Menagerie in Chicago, starring Laurette Taylor of luminous legend. He spoke of the stunned silence at the end. That first audience was small, but he had been so gripped by the play that he had ended up kneeling between the seats leaning forward, intent on not missing a word.

A student production of Camino Real, directed by Tony Falkingham, was a revelation. A kind of underworld answer to the transcendence of Our Town, or the poetic portraiture of Under Milkwood.

When the National Theatre in London did Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I attached my old American friend, Jim Franz, who’d been to college on a sports scholarship, as football consultant to the production. Jim recorded his thoughts and insights on a tape and sent it over. When Ian Charleson as Brick, said “…all summer long we’d pass those long, high balls that couldn’t be intercepted by anything but time…” the speech was transformed.

Paul Newman as Brick and Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie the Becky
Paul Newman as Brick and Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie the Cat


As we all know the great trio of Menagerie, Streetcar and Cat are foundational in the canon of world 20th century drama.



And now here is Baby Doll at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey.

Susannah Hoffman as Baby Doll. Photo Richard Termine.
Susannah Hoffman as Baby Doll. Photo Richard Termine.

The movie of that name was derived from Williams’s one-act play Twenty Seven Wagons Full of Cotton. The movie starred Karl Malden and Eli Wallach, and Carol Baker in the title role, and is a dark not-so-funny tale of revenge.

Williams returned to the theme and the characters in more than one version including another one-act called, The Long Stay Cut Short or The Unsatisfactory Supper, experimenting with different perspectives on the story.

The production at the McCarter in a new version, developed by artistic director Emily Mann (who also directs) in partnership with French playwright Pierre Laville, elevates the nuance in the story, finds all the Williams elements of passion, desire, desperate tension and latent violence, and is played with pitch-perfect subtlety by its cast.

Full disclosure; Trish Conolly (Three Blanches, a Stella, one Maggie, a Laura, an Amanda, an Alexandra del Lago and an Esmeralda) plays Aunt Rose Comfort inhabiting a storyline that embodies one of Williams’s “… birdlike women without a nest…” —nibbling at — “… the crust of humility…” is a close personal friend of mine, sometime professional colleague, and er yes, also related to me by marriage.

Patricia Conolly as Aunt Rose Comfort. Photo Richard Termine.
Patricia Conolly as Aunt Rose Comfort. Photo Richard Termine.

The rest of the cast (who are all new to me, and to none of whom I am related) are: Bob Joy, who plays to the life an uncouth man of the reddest neck, Dylan McDermott who, poised and dangerous as the Sicilian, commands the stage, and Susannah Hoffman, who as Baby Doll gives us magnificent work in a detailed performance that should be seen everywhere.

Brian McCann playing the cameo policeman brings with him the danger of the 1950s Delta. And special mention must be made of the real live chicken who plays ‘Fussy’ in her stage debut.

From the set, which is both substantial and ghostly, to the evocations in the lighting, to the delicate underscoring of the soundscape, to authentic costumes and props which complete a production rare in its unity of accomplishment across all elements, we get as exciting an evening in the theatre as if Williams himself had finished this text yesterday.

I could say more about the acting from the entire cast, but I won’t, beyond that it is about as superb as I’ve seen. But here’s the thing. This play (as with all Williams) would be easy to do badly.

Even the finest actors benefit from inspired direction. Here, the play is impeccably directed. Rhythmically it finds variety, and quicksilver turns, in tone, pace and mood. Good direction leaves clues in standout performances. Great direction is scarcely visible because the ensemble takes precedence. Kudos to Emily Mann.

In the ephemera that is regional theatre who knows what happens to this play after the 11th of October 2015, but if you can get to Princeton before then and get a ticket, do yourself a favor.

It’s actually like seeing a new play by Tennessee Williams

Acting It Shoulda Been You Living on Love Plays Renee Fleming Theatre theatre criticism Writing

An Alternative to the New York Times

Renee Fleming in Living on Love
Renee Fleming in Living on Love

For sheer missing the point, today’s review of Living on Love in The New York Times leads the field.

The point is: it’s Renée Fleming!

The other point is: it’s a farce …

While one cannot fault from a technical point of view some of what is said in the columns of The New York Times’s theatre pages, one could wish that the historical fact-checking was saved for a Master’s Thesis.

One could wish too, for more simple pleasure taken in the act of going to the theatre. More willingness to laugh. A little less requirement that plays offered to the chubby-fingered Infanta of critical taste conform quite so strictly to a Malvolio personal world-view.

I offer here a different take:

In another delicious sweetmeat that is this Broadway season’s theme of frivolous confectionary, Renée Fleming, the great opera diva, is letting her hair down to great effect.

Joe Di Pietro’s update on Garson Kanin’s unfinished play Peccadillo, renamed here Living on Love, plays on farcical tradition going back to Moliere.

Whatever gaps there may be in Ms. Fleming’s acting technique are more than compensated by her ability to time a laugh, and when she sings a fragment of classic opera a gossamer enchantment holds the audience suspended — how could it not? Ms. Fleming’s vocal achievement, experienced here playfully out of context, gives us a teasing insight into the limits of what is possible in the human voice.

Generously supported by a cast of stage veterans, Ms. Fleming’s unique visitation from the refined world of opera, and the fact that she is not a Broadway actress — nor indeed to make the play work should she be — means that the best joke of the evening is the one that transcends the script. Simply put: this is a great star of one genre having a holiday in another.

*       *       *

In Peter Brook’s influential book on theatre, The Empty Space, he tells a story about a show his company put up at their theatre in Paris that received damning reviews. The show was a true flop and they played to almost empty houses. The public stayed away in droves.

An empty theatre
An empty theatre

The company announced three free performances. Such was the lure of free tickets that the police were called in to manage the crowds The houses were packed.

At the end of the third show, the directress of the theatre came onto the stage and addressed the audience. “Is there anyone here,” she asked, “who could not afford the price of a ticket?”

One person put his hand up.

“And the rest of you, why did you have to wait to be let in for free?”

“It had a bad Press!”

A pause, while the directress held for silence. Then she asked another question.

“Do you believe what you read in the Press?”

*      *      *

When the RSC premiered its extraordinary version of Nicholas Nickleby, a show that played for years and toured the world, British critic Sir Bernard Levin panned it. Such was the public response that he returned to view the show a second time, and had the humilty to revise his initial assessment in print.

*      *      *

These days influence in public opinion-making is shifting from mainstream media to the blogosphere, to twitter and so forth. The positive in these changes is the lessening of influence of the mightier media organs. In my native London, influential theatre criticism is spread across half a dozen newspapers, but here in New York The Times still holds undisputed sway.

I reference another recent baffling – let me say that again – BAFFLING review in The Times of that delicious soufflé currently running on Broadway It Shoulda Been You. This show is an exquisitely layered riff on wedding forms. Anyone who’s ever been involved in a wedding will recognize how even the best intended of them can descend into mayhem.

Cast of It Shoulda Been You
Cast of It Shoulda Been You

Punning on mad mothers, frantic fathers, brides beset and a semi-prescient wedding planner holding it all together, punctuated by fabulous show stopping numbers, witty dancing, a show with a tiered wedding-cake construction, with piquant pace, it’s delicious to the last twist.

*      *      *

It is a truism held amongst actors that many, perhaps most, critics are practitioners manqué. The occupational hazard of being a critic is that one will come to despise that which one is paid to critique.

If you are in New York, do see these faintly-praised-in-the-Times shows if you can. And feel free to tell me which of us, Mr. Brantley with his readership of millions, or C. McPhillamy niche blogger, comes closer to pleasure in his assessment.

Sir Toby had it right: “Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?”