If acting were an athletic contest, the combatants in "Garden District," two Tennessee Williams plays set in the genteel part of New Orleans in 1936, would get high marks.
Since, however, acting is supposed to be about human behavior, the scurrying about onstage, the grandiose arm gestures and vocal gymnastics that characterize this production, however rewarding they are for the performers, leave the plays in the lurch.
"Something Unspoken" concerns two maiden ladies one of whom, Cornelia (Myra Carter), is a social lioness, trying to engineer her election to the presidency of the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy by telephone. What deepens the play is its depiction of the relationship between Cornelia and the younger woman who lives with her (Pamela Payton-Wright).
The title suggests an unexpressed intimacy doubtless physical darker than anything Carter or Payton-Wright convey. As a result this staging remains simply a cartoon.
"Suddenly Last Summer" also alludes to sexual impulses that did not figure in Garden District conversation. Here those impulses have been acted upon, and the results have been catastrophic.
Sebastian, a wealthy poet, went to Italy with his beautiful cousin Catherine. She acted as "bait" to lure primitive boys. They, like savages, turned on him, killed and cannibalized him, the sight of which has driven Catherine mad. His imperious mother Viola, intent on denying what has happened, wants Catherine lobotomized. In one of Williams' most sardonic touches, Catherine's mother and brother side with Viola because they don't want to jeopardize their inheritance from her, another kind of cannibalism.
Both Elizabeth Ashley, as Viola, and Jordan Baker, as Catherine, settle for caricatures of Southern women. Both these characters, especially six decades ago, were aristocrats. Ashley and Baker portray them as attitudinizing white trash. Ashley approaches camp, Baker goes far beyond. Her delivery of the great monologue describing Sebastian's death is a strenuous athletic workout almost totally devoid of emotion.
Although Victor Slezak and Celia Weston do creditable work in "Summer," the direction of both plays leaves Williams in roughly the same condition as poor Sebastian.
We are probably not going to see much better acting this season than the sizzlingly electric exchanges between Elizabeth Ashley, as a tigerish matriarch jealously guarding her dead son's memory, and Jordan Baker as the son's emotionally disturbed cousin, who witnessed his bizarre death.
But I get ahead of myself. Ashley and Baker are appearing in Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly Last Summer," the longer of a double bill of one-acters, gathered together under the title, "Garden District."
Williams had a long association with Circle-in-the-Square - indeed Jose Quintero's staging of his "Summer and Smoke," with Geraldine Page in 1952, was the production that put the company on the map.
Now in its 45th year, and also the final season as an artistic director of Theodore Mann, one of the theater's co-founders, it was entirely appropriate that it should last night kick off that season with a bow to Tennessee, this double bill not see in New York as an entity since its original outing in 1958.
The Garden District in question is that high-toned section of New Orleans, beloved of the local aristocracy. And both plays have heroines with the blue blood of the Confederacy running imperiously through their veins.
The first, and briefer, of the plays is "Something Unspoken," a character study of two women, a wealthy, unbending martinet of formidable age (Myra Carter) and her younger, infinitely meeker secretary-companion (Pamela Payton-Wright).
As the older woman waits over breakfast for the results of her possible election (she insists by acclamation, proudly refusing to have her name vulgarly placed in nomination) to Chief of the Board of the Daughters of the Confederacy, the writing reveals the subtlety of Strindberg, but not the bite.
Despite Mann's delicate staging and the handsomely accentuated acting of the acidulated Carter and the mouse-like Payton-Wright, the piece lacks, as it always has, definition.
"Suddenly Last Summer," which is often given separately, is another thing altogether. The play is probably best known through the Joseph L. Mankiewicz movie, with its screenplay by Gore Vidal, and a cast led by Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.
On stage, or screen, the story is ludicrous - like a poisonously painted orchid. Sebastian (the unseen and indeed posthumous hero), a poet of lifestyle rather than accomplishment, was of the nasty habit of taking his mother on yearly foreign trips and using her wealth and other allure as bait to attract young boys for his own sexual proclivities.
But last summer, he took his young and flighty cousin - and the trip ended disastrously, with a feverishly unlikely luncheon party at which Sebastian (like Hamlet's Polonius) did not eat but was eaten!
Now the mother, the imperious and wildly wicked Mrs. Venable, (Ashley) is anxious to have her niece, Catherine (Baker), currently in the protective care of nuns, lobotomized into silence, and is prepared to bribe a young brain specialist Dr. Cukrowicz (Victor Slezak) with an enormous research grant if he will oblige with the necessary surgery.
Of Williams' plays this is the only one that - for my taste - is overheated into melodrama. But there is still wonderfully perceptive - and witty - writing here, and the chances for actors are luxuriant.
Under Harold Scott's forceful direction, they are all admirably taken, with the implacably fiendish Ashley and the hysterically tortured Baker going at one another like drag divas on a rampage. Great histrionic stuff - if somewhat unlikely.
The gods are not being kind to Circle in the Square, but, to paraphrase Euripides: whom the gods would destroy, they first tease without mercy.
On the basis of Robert Falls's robust revival of Tennessee Williams's "Rose Tattoo" earlier this year, you might have thought that Circle in the Square had broken its recent run of bad luck. Thus there were great hopes for the theater's latest Williams revival: "Garden District," the program of two one-act plays, "Something Unspoken" and "Suddenly Last Summer," first done here in 1958, which opened last night.
At the start of "Suddenly Last Summer," the nearly full-length work that is the evening's principal attraction, there is every reason to anticipate a safe, satisfying journey into the particular Williams world of overripe, not quite unspeakable decadence. The year is 1936. The semitropical New Orleans garden, which is the locale, is sparely but evocatively defined by a few pieces of white lawn furniture, some hanging primordial ferns, a large, circular fountain filled not with water but exotic plants and an insectivorous Venus' flytrap. This is imprisoned in a glass box, as if to prevent it from lunging at unsuspecting guests.
The set, beautifully lighted by Marc B. Weiss, is full of promise. But as the play proceeds, the design quickly turns out to be as inhospitable to the audience as it is to the actors, while some of the actors are as inhospitable to the text as it is to them. These include both Elizabeth Ashley, who plays Mrs. Venable, and Jordan Baker, who appears as Catharine Holly, the niece she wants lobotomized.
"Suddenly Last Summer" is one of Williams's wildest, most richly (and tightly) written Gothic romances. At the center is the ferocious, very rich Mrs. Venable, obsessed by love for her dead son, Sebastian, a dilettante who was a part-time poet and full-time homosexual of ravenous needs. It is Mrs. Venable's intention on this afternoon to persuade a young doctor to agree to the surgical removal of Catharine's disgusting memories of Sebastian's death.
The play is simple in form but rich in literary juice. Under the influence of sodium pentothal, Catharine pours out the truth of what she witnessed the summer before on a beach in Spain. Vicious, aging, foolish Sebastian: for him, love was a commercial transaction, and never anything more than an act of physical consumption. In Spain a horde of hungry beggars turned the tables on him with a vengeance.
"Suddenly Last Summer" is not one of Williams's great plays but it's a very good one, both seriously scary and ghoulishly funny. The language is that of a self-lacerating, demonic angel. As anyone knows who has seen the film version with Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor or the television adaptation with Maggie Smith and Natasha Richardson, it also has two roles that, given half a chance, would seem to be infinitely actable. Not at Circle in the Square.
Under the flaccid direction of Harold Scott, Ms. Ashley and Ms. Baker are in two different hemispheres. Ms. Baker, recently seen as the youngest member of the trio in Edward Albee's "Three Tall Woman," simply seems ill equipped to play Catharine. It would be kind to call her performance eccentric.
That's the adjective that initially comes to mind when, in the play's early scenes, she lopes Groucho-like around the theater's awkward rectangular stage, her tall silhouette as thin and as flexible as Olive Oyl's. When she reaches the climactic monologues, things get worse. The voice is harsh and uncontrolled. Words are mangled with the rise in volume that passes for increased emotional intensity.
Ms. Ashley is an experienced actress with complete command of her body and her fine, dusky, penetrating voice. Yet her Violet Venable is monumentally wrongheaded. Instead of the dragon with the "withered bosom" and dyed hair Williams describes, she comes on like a zaftig siren whose deep tan suggests she's just back from Acapulco. Though she uses a cane (Mrs. Venable having had a stroke), she still manages to do a lot of sashaying and hip rolling.
You might think that the long-departed Mr. Venable had found his wife not in New Orleans' genteel, upper-middle-class Garden District but in a bar in the French Quarter, coaxing lonely sailors to spring for a bottle of real French Champagne. Further, Ms. Ashley tosses out lines in a manner that appears to call for some sort of camp response from the audience, which she sometimes gets.
Most prominent among the supporting actors, all of whom play it straight, are Victor Slezak as the doctor, and Celia Weston and Mitchell Lichtenstein as Catharine's bewildered mother and greedy brother.
In his directorial capacity, Mr. Scott must take responsibility for Zack Brown's scenic design, which isolates much of the action at one end of the stage. The picturesque fountain takes up the other end, though actors can walk around it (barely) and sometimes sit on its rim. Mr. Scott also hasn't mastered the demands made on a director when the stage is surrounded by the audience. Actors are constantly bobbing from one place to another, giving us a front view one minute, a profile the next, then a back view that often obscures the actor to whom the other actor's back appears to be talking.
The director of "Something Unspoken," the curtain raiser, is Theodore Mann, Circle in the Square's venerable co-founder (with Jose Quintero), who is soon to be succeeded as the artistic director by Josephine Abady. Though he has been in the theater a long time, he has no more success with his play than Mr. Scott has with "Suddenly Last Summer."
Like its companion piece, "Something Unspoken" is set in the Garden District, in a world where all the men have conveniently died after providing handsomely for their Gorgon women. As Catharine recalls Williams's sister, Rose, the two older woman in "Garden District" seem to represent the nastier aspects of his mother. "Something Unspoken" is a slight play that explores the tacit lesbian feelings between the imperious, socially demanding Cornelia (Myra Carter) and her somewhat younger secretary, Grace (Pamela Payton-Wright). Between telephone calls in which she tries to orchestrate her own election as regent of the Confederate Daughters, Cornelia goads the passive Grace to acknowledge that they have "something" that must be spoken about.
As it's now being performed, the play looks underrehearsed. The tone is far more tentative than required to see behind the polite facade to the passions within. "Something Unspoken" should be a piece of cake for both Ms. Carter, also late of "Three Tall Women," and Ms. Payton-Wright, but it's not. It barely exists.
Under the umbrella title "Garden District," Tennessee Williams'"Something Unspoken" and "Suddenly Last Summer" opened Off Broadway in 1958. The curtain-raiser is as spare and elliptical as "Suddenly Last Summer" is ripe and excessive, and the strengths of both plays are revealed in Circle in the Square's problematic but rewarding revival.
"Something Unspoken" is certainly the less familiar of the two plays. It concerns Cornelia Scott (Myra Carter, late of "Three Tall Women"), a society matron angling for the top post -- and nothing less than the top post, thank you very much -- of the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, and Grace Lancaster (Pamela Payton-Wright), who has been Cornelia's unflappable secretary and something more, as the title suggests, for 15 years.
Though much of "Something Unspoken" transpires in a series of telephone conversations with someone attending the meeting where Cornelia's fate is being decided, the intimacy that exists between these two women is lovingly -- though never reverently -- revealed. Under Theodore Mann's sensitive direction, the two roles are beautifully played, Carter's with a sly impishness that's positively endearing; Payton-Wright's with a nobility that's almost -- but not quite, in these genteel environs -- heartbreaking.
Too bad this is a play that demands a theatergoer's ability to see every verbal thrust-and-parry register on the actor's faces, and that Circle in the Square is a theater that makes such viewing impossible for a large part of the audience. It's disgraceful to present this play in the round, rather than the three-quarter thrust that would have let everyone in the audience appreciate this small gem.
"Suddenly Last Summer" is certainly the better-known of the two plays, primarily for Joseph Mankiewicz's 1959 film of Gore Vidal's screenplay. For connoisseurs of post-noir American gothic, few movies can top this one, with riveting performances by Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Mercedes McCambridge. The asylum scene alone -- with the humid Taylor provoking a typhoon of cage-rattling and drool among the inmates -- is worth the price of admission.
Of course, Williams had more in mind in this condensed, florid tale of a well-born poet who one summer traded his adoring but aging mother, Violet (Elizabeth Ashley), for his more fetching, if troubled, cousin Catherine (Jordan Baker, also late of "Three Tall Women") to accompany him on the exotic journey that produces his annual tome.
Sebastian Venable not only failed to produce a poemthat summer during a stay at a Spanish resort, he died hideously in an incident Violet is determined to have literally cut out of Catherine's consciousness. To that end, she appeals to the young Dr. Cukrowicz (Victor Slezak), whose experiments in lobotomy at a nearby institution are producing just the kind of results -- damn the long-term consequences -- that Violet is looking for.
Set in a jungle garden and drawn in unyieldingly lurid imagery, "Suddenly Last Summer" may nevertheless be Williams' most powerful statement about the dark side of art's creation, the part about artists being something less than social paragons. A successor to Blanche DuBois, Catherine made her debut in the French Quarter, she admits, long before her debut in the Garden District. She knows that Sebastian has used Violet and then her to procure pretty young men. But she also knows that "we all use each other, that's what we think of as love." She shares with Violet the belief that in his way, Sebastian was searching for God.
Violet is a monster who cannot abide this trashy child from her late husband's side of the family, and while Ashley (who may be as close to a Sophia Loren-like beauty as we have) gets the determination right, she's unappealingly and unrelentingly gruff, missing the hauteur that separates her from the rest of the gathering clan.
The revelation here is Baker, who has to navigate a long, horrific monologue that would have been right at home in "Titus Andronicus." Though some of her line readings are strange, in whole Baker manages a dignified and compelling performance, not least in the steamy, charged mix of edginess and languor she conveys even while towering over everyone around her. The story of Sebastian Venable's demise is jammed with indelible images -- of a sun like a "huge white bone that had caught on fire in the sky," of the gobbling noises made by "featherless little black sparrows" who would eventually devour the poet.
Harold Scott's staging also suffers in the space -- there's endless, heavy-handed repositioning of actors to give everyone a look -- and Violet's jungle garden is meagerly suggested in Zack Brown's setting (though his costumes for both plays are exquisite). Nevertheless, this production is more involving than last season's Williams crowd-pleaser, "The Rose Tattoo," on this stage.