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 Sholom Aleichem Theatre Theordore Bikel Trish Conolly


I met Theodore Bikel in 2006 when he, a sprightly 81 year old, and that young actress of my acquaintance Trish Conolly, were doing a two-handed play at the Coconut Grove Theatre in Miami. It was a domestic comedy about, among other things, the physical inconveniences of advancing years.

Scan 3

In Trish Theo found an acting partner who could match him on a stage, and I know that he loved working with her. Tamara, to whom he was married until her sudden death in 2012, and I, a bit like a couple of boxing coaches, would watch them rehearsing from the orchestra seats of the theatre. We would exchange whispered comments with each other, commissioning each other to deliver delicate notes to our respective partners. We all four became friends.

Theo died a little over a week ago.

He was a public figure. His C.V. as an actor covers all mediums at the highest and most celebrated levels in the profession; his prolific musicianship in live performances and recordings; his abilities as a linguist — he could sing in 21 languages and spoke five or six fluently; his co-founding of the Newport Folk Festival; his abilities as an autobiographer and as a raconteur; his tireless support of the Israeli cause, and his fearless speaking out against injustice; his 10 year presidency of the American Actors’ Equity Association (during which time he suggested the creation of the Manhattan Plaza). All this and more — including his 2,000 plus performances as Tevye the milkman – all this was just a part of who he was.

I did not meet him as any of the above. I knew him first as a big-framed, big-hearted man, with a persistent, in fact constant, deliciously salty sense of humour.

We last saw him at a screening of “Theodore Bikel: In The Shoes of Sholom Aleichem”. It had been a couple of years. At first I almost didn’t recognise him. He was always a big man with a barrel-chest. His frame had shrunk, and he was in a wheelchair. But then I heard his voice and I knew it was him – that unmistakable tone with its relish for life, still strong and vibrant.

As Tevye 2001
As Tevye 2001

After the screening there was a reception held in Theo’s honor. More than three hundred people were present. All the men wanted to embrace Theo, and all the women to kiss him. Aimee, whom he had married late in his still-vigorous ninth decade of life, enlisted me to help manage the crush. As I guided Theo’s chariot through the crowd, typically, he was telling me a joke that could have been part of a twenty-something’s stand up set.

We dined. Then he sang. We pushed him to the centre of the room in front of the band.

He sang two songs.

We listened, and I was aware that Trish was focussing on Theo, communicating with him silently, in a way that two people who have shared a stage can sometimes do. He was aware of that too, of course – amongst his general awareness of the audience. Such is part of the secret that all performers of quality share.

He sang as he always did with gusto, enthusiasm, and in the second song there was a detail that exactly expressed his brilliance as a performer. It was just a small twist of the head, a flicker of rapture in the smile, and the eyes half closed for a second, him uniting with the spirit of the music and sharing it.

It was an unannounced farewell.

Afterwards, outside, waiting with Aimee for a car to arrive, Trish and I stood by him on the sidewalk. We spoke little. After a delay there was a car at last. I helped him get in and I told him I loved him. After he died, as often happens, it was then that I knew how much.

He was widely loved. When he went, they dimmed the lights on Broadway.

Theo was steeped in the lore and the traditions of his culture, his race, and his faith. He was also man of immense humanity who knew that our only hope for peace on Earth is to also allow others to hold, in peace, other views, faiths, and cultures.

Not to say he wasn’t Jewish.

One time Theo was walking along in Manhattan’s Lower East Side when he was accosted by some evangelical Christians who tried to convert him on the spot. He listened patiently. His response was genius:

“I come from a very old tribe. For five thousand years we’ve been doing business with the Father, and now — you want me to talk to the Son!?”


One Midnight in Paris

I met Lauren Bacall just at the turn of the millennium. She was in Waiting in the Wings on Broadway, Noel Coward’s last major play, the one he wrote for his distinguished actress friends of a certain age, the play being set in a retirement home for ladies of the stage. Seldom produced, revived in New York in 1999, this was a production to celebrate Coward’s centenary.

Our two leading ladies were Lauren Bacall, screen goddess of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and Rosemary Harris, stage star on both sides of the Atlantic and now known to a global audience as Spiderman’s Aunt May.

Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris in Waiting in the Wings.
Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris in Waiting in the Wings.

The other actors in the play comprised a who’s who of New York theatrical names, including Britain’s own Simon Jones (Arthur Dent in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide), I understudied Simon and later went on for him for almost a month when family matters took him back to England. If you are curious the full cast list is here. Initially, I was included in this illustrious company playing the relatively modest (but utterly crucial) role of the 2nd St. John’s Ambulance Man under my former stage name of Collin Johnson. In fact the redoubtable Geddeth Smith (1st St. John’s Ambulance Man), and I, carried a dead body down the stairs on a stretcher and out through the common room of the home where the play is set, in the pre-credits opening sequence. It was a solemn moment which gave a foundation of gravitas to the play.

Until one matinee about 90 performances into the season, I did what Sir Noel Coward famously said you must never do, and tripped over a bit of furniture, dropping the body.

One of those things that technically you are indeed not supposed to do, and yet somehow, one of those which many actors do seem to do after all. All the distinguished ladies of Broadway had to turn upstage to hide their giggles, and for the rest of the run Liz Wilson would sometimes whisper mischievously to me as I was waiting to go on, “Drop the body again, Colin!”

Opening in Boston, the show ran for six months in New York, playing first the Walter Kerr theatre and then The Eugene O’ Neil. The run included one of the most masterful bits of producing I’ve ever seen – but that’s a story for later.

Miss Bacall, had a reputation and deservedly so for being smart, feisty and direct. She was a creature of the movies and all that can mean, and she knew it. She trailed clouds of glamour. She was also of course, one of the greatest movie stars that ever lived and one of the most beautiful human beings ever to act in front of a camera.

Later I came to think that Miss Bacall’s tough exterior also functioned in a protective way. It took a little time, but by slow degrees a manner which could be truly challenging turned, in my perception, into a graceful charm. Midway through the run she hosted the cast at a dinner at Joe Allen’s and hair was let down on all sides.

It wasn’t as if she and I became buddies with weekly phone calls, but there was a charming coda to the experience of being in a show with her.

The show ran till May, and then Trish Conolly, who had baffled me by appearing to be far too young to be included in a cast specifically about ladies of retirement age, and I, took a romantic trip to Paris.

In Paris we met up with Betty, as we now called her.

She used to go to Paris in the summer when she could. This was Bastille Day, July 14th. Oddly, on this day, instead of haute cuisine, she took us to a favorite Chinese restaurant — and very good it was too. Gong pao chicken, and we each had a Vodka and tonic.

Betty was relaxed and charm itself, and she had plans, insisting we were to see the fireworks. At about 20 minutes of midnight we left the restaurant and began a gentle stroll along a boulevard, getting slightly lost. Suddenly the boulevard filled with about a million people and I became acutely aware that I had LAUREN BACALL on my arm. It was distantly reminiscent of a tricky moment in an early technical rehearsal of Waiting in the Wings when I had to go on in a blackout to guide Miss Bacall off the stage. This delicate function, taking some ten seconds or so, became my nightly task. But lost on the boulevard as we were, this was a scene change without end. “What happens,” I thought, “if she is recognized, and the crowd demands Humphrey Bogart?”

We found our way, we sat on a bench in the Place de la Bastille to watch the fireworks. Betty, enjoying the evening, reminisced with details about her glamorous career, in a way that would make a biographer thrill. When the fireworks were over Trish and I escorted Betty through side streets to the modest hotel where she liked to stay low profile.

And then there was an incident which was all film.

The setting was just right. Like one of those Noir exteriors lit by a master of lighting. We were on a cobbled street and the lamplight was something Fellini might have come up with. There was moonlight too.

The crowds were gone, the street was empty. And then we heard footsteps as though made by the best of foley artists. A young man of maybe 17 or 18 years old approached shyly. He spoke softly to me in French, “Is that? It is … isn’t it, Lauren …?”


“Do you think she would give me an autograph?”

“I don’t know, you can ask.”

The young man offered a ragged piece of paper. Betty turned to him, gave him a smile that dazzled him and glamorized the night. It was a gracious moment, as she favored the boy — he was scarcely more than that. Her smile unleashed the full force of the silver screen. It made him weak at the knees — I know because he turned to me, as Miss Bacall signed her name.

“Mes genoux tremblent.” he said, “My knees are trembling.”