If you had wandered into the Vivian Beaumont at the intermission of "In the Summer House" and occupied one of the numerous seats that became vacant for the second act, you might have imagined that you were watching an inept parody of a Tennessee Williams play.
In some ways, you would have been right.
Jane Bowles' play seems very much an attempt to write in the style of Williams. Bowles, who died dancing at a party in a psychiatric hospital in Malaga in 1977, once wrote: "I have never yet enjoyed a day, but I have never stopped trying to arrange for happiness."
It is a perfect line for a Williams character. But unlike his people, who elicit deep sympathy and evoke issues larger than their own dilemmas, neither Bowles nor her characters transcend the neuroses in which they gladly wallow.
"In the Summer House" concerns two women and their daughters, the hopelessly retiring Molly and the tiresomely vivacious Vivian. At the end of the first act, Vivian has killed herself; at the end of the second, we learn that Molly was responsible.
It is possible that when the play was first produced, in 1953 (with Judith Anderson, Mildred Dunnock and Jean Stapleton) one might have cared about these women, mourned Vivian and been unsettled at Molly's plight. In JoAnne Akalaitis' production, the death of Vivian comes as welcome relief; nothing about the other characters excites enough interest to remain in their company for another act.
Under Akalaitis' direction, everything is reduced to a dumb cartoon. Admittedly, in a program note, Bowles' husband, Paul, the author of "The Sheltering Sky," describes Jane as a "dealer in comedy," but the example he cites suggests a spoiled, self-indulgent child. (In her lifetime, her willfulness and eccentricity made her an object of curiosity; now, I fear, her style is merely the norm.)
If such skilled actresses as Dianne Wiest and Frances Conroy, who play the mothers, overdo everything under Akalaitis' direction, it cannot be expected that the rest of the cast, clearly amateurs, could do better.
George Tsypin's spare, poetic first-act sets are the only thing that captures the play's odd, dry style.
When Jane Bowles' play "In the Summer House" was staged on Broadway 40 years ago, it received mixed notices, indifferent houses, and a certain buried status as a possible underground classic that might one day be disinterred to everyone's surprise and pleasure.
Earlier attempts at such a second coming were in face made with off-Broadway stagings first in 1964 and then 1977, but the reception for "In the Summer House" remained wintry, despite Bowles' own resilient literary reputation - she herself had died in 1973 at the age of 56 - and many distinguished and enthusiastic advocates, such as Tennessee Williams.
Last night - on the dubious principle of fourth-time lucky, no doubt - at its Vivian Beaumont theater, the Lincoln Center Theater offered it another turn at bat, in a new staging by Joanne Atalaitis. And it's still a muddled bore.
Apparently a parable of motherhood, with all its perils and responsibilities, and an attempt to track human behavior through unlikely, although not unfeasible, patterns of opposites, its construction is amateur-ish, its verbal byplay at best literary-ish and at worst fool-ish, and its import vague-ish.
It is a very ishy kind of play - a play that seems to reveal less and less as you think about it more and more. A whole load of pretensions run off in search of a theme but find nowhere to park.
It aims at dazzling whimsy: When a young man recalls a cat being boiled alive in an upstairs kitchen, a woman replies indignantly: "What do you mean by an upstairs kitchen?"
That one inspired moment aside, the rest of the play is mired in sophomoric ingenuousness.
The widowed Gertrude Eastman Cuevas (Dianne Wiest) bewails the fact that her dull daughter, Molly (Alina Arenal) spends most of her time mooning in a summer house in her Californian beach-front garden. Another widow, Mrs. Constable (Frances Conroy), is equally if differently nonplussed by her hyperactive daughter Vivian (Kali Rocha).
By the end, Vivian is dead in a suspicious accident, Mrs. Constable has found the consolations of liquor, and Mrs. Cuevas, having entered into an unfortunate marriage with an extroverted Mexican family, finds, after years of neglect, that she actually needs her still sullen daughter. Life finds strange ways to bring its chickens home to roost! As people have been heard to say.
"I'm Jewish, homosexual, alcoholic, a communist -- and I'm a cripple!" Jane Bowles once bragged, winning a bout of one-upsmanship with a self-pitying fellow traveler on the literary fringe. Bowles, whose writing career was over by the time she had a stroke at the age of 40 and who died in 1973 at 56, was everything she said and more, including the wife of the novelist and composer Paul Bowles ("The Sheltering Sky"), with whom she fashioned a now-legendary open marriage in the sybaritic expatriates' colony of Tangier.
An original and independent woman, yet one who never escaped her demons or her husband's orbit, Jane Bowles was born to be a heroine for our time, if only a cult figure in her own. She'd be fascinating with or without her limp, as those who have read her letters, her biography (by Millicent Dillon) or Michelle Green's recent group portrait of the Tangier crowd ("The Dream at the End of the World," published by HarperCollins) can attest. Her own literary output, however, was tiny: one novel, seven short stories and one full-length play, "In the Summer House," which was revived at the Vivian Beaumont Theater last night.
This odd-duck drama about mothers and daughters, which received respectful reviews but scant audiences during its two-month run in the 1953-54 Broadway season, is just the sort of unjustly neglected piece a company like Lincoln Center Theater should be re-examining. As far as I can determine, it has received only one previous professional revival in New York, short-lived and Off Broadway 30 years ago. This production, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, is faithful to the work's letter and spirit, but it is seriously compromised by some poor acting and by the vast expanse of the Beaumont stage, which the designer, George Tsypin, accentuates to serve the play's poetic subtext but not the performers who must deliver the text itself.
"In the Summer House" finds its life in the free spin of characters and language, not epic vistas or plot. Its 1950's Bohemian manner, in which the transitions and emotional key changes are as abrupt as those in a jazz improvisation, is typified by the opening monologue, spoken from a balcony by Dianne Wiest in a Judy Holliday voice and a flaming red wig. Ms. Wiest plays Gertrude Eastman Cuevas, a Southern California widow whose mind veers illogically from her acerbic memories of her dead husband to her deepest feelings of loss and isolation, with time out to browbeat her teen-age daughter (Alina Arenal) and to plot her cynical next marriage to a moneyed Mexican (Jaime Tirelli). Forty years after its debut, the speech is still so tricky that Ms. Akalaitis feels compelled to negotiate it for the audience by underlining its gravest passages with such "Bell Jar" effects as portentous lighting cues and weeping Philip Glass music.
Mrs. Eastman Cuevas is a suffocating mother from hell, but so full of unexpected edges she defies cliche. She is soon matched in eccentricity by another widow, the visiting Mrs. Constable (Frances Conroy, in the evening's outstanding performance), and another problem daughter (Kali Rocha), who add their own tragic complications to the Eastman Cuevas menage. In a program note comparing Bowles to a number of 20th-century male playwrights, Ms. Akalaitis argues that these women are closer to Eugene O'Neill's than to those of Tennessee Williams, a Bowles friend. But despite a scene that echoes Mary Tyrone's mad descent in her wedding dress in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," the women of "In the Summer House" usually can be found replicating the struggles between the weak and the strong in Williams plays. The one significant male intruder, a suitor (Liev Schreiber) for Mrs. Eastman Cuevas's daughter, pushes the filial struggles for dominance into overdrive.
Yet Bowles's uninhibited voice, distinguished by surreal humor and non sequiturs ("Whenever I think of a woman going wild, I always picture her with black hair"), is her own. A character in mid-breakdown forgets her sorrows the moment she retrieves a lost pocketbook. A drunken reverie includes a bizarre digression about the difficulty of registering to vote. Incongruous food imagery is ubiquitous: sugar, rice, spaghetti and meatballs, hot dogs, chop suey and oyster cocktails all play strange, sometimes dreamy, sometimes farcical roles in the action. One character fantasizes about opening an "odd" Restaurant Midnight; the entire second act takes place in a joint called the Lobster Bowl.
Ms. Akalaitis is at her most imaginative juggling such absurdities. Mr. Tsypin's set, a Dali landscape bathed in Georgia O'Keeffe light by Jennifer Tipton, allows the director to make ditsy spectacle out of the eating, singing and dancing of the Mexican entourage surrounding Mrs. Eastman Cuevas's new husband. A beach scene opens with a striking tableau of catatonic sunbathers in shades; Act I ends with the spooky, silent business of a just-wed couple sitting at a table reading magazines. A sad image of drowning, seen through a gauzy haze, could be a classical icon.
It's the intimate moments and the nuances of acting that, as usual, too frequently elude this director. Both unstable daughters, one of them described as "dangerous" and "ready to explode," come across as collegiate ingenues; Mr. Schreiber's suitor offers a single dull note of wounded innocence, and Sheila Tousey, in the role of the chain-smoking, tattooed, loud-mouthed Lobster Bowl proprietor, is a brassy hash-slinger as she might be imagined by an anthropologist who has yet to go out on a field trip. These inadequate performances are stretched thinner still by the large distances the open set and expansive staging require their flat voices and wan personalities to command.
For Ms. Wiest, an actress of brilliant technique, the challenges are in the text. Although she does wonderfully by Mrs. Eastman Cuevas's wit, she is not in the habit of playing unlovable characters and rarely conveys the requisite cruelty; in her final scene of nervous collapse, she reconciles the role's complex strands by blurring and sentimentalizing them in bouts of sobbing histrionics that do not devastate the audience as intended.
In the 1953 production, Judith Anderson's Mrs. Eastman Cuevas was widely thought to have been overshadowed by Mildred Dunnock's Mrs. Constable, and history repeats itself here. Ms. Conroy's prim, patrician mother, forever trying to avoid "the black pit" by concentrating on "petty details," starts off a bit squeakily. But her extended drunk scene in the second act, in which the actress's ghostly pallor and aura of crumbling gentility belie her guttural alcoholic wisecracks, is a memorable ride through psychic hairpin turns. Alternately hilarious and desperate, in focus and utterly lost, Ms. Conroy embraces Mrs. Constable's mad contradictions without reining them in to form a conventional stage neurotic.
Is this character what Jane Bowles was like? So it seems. For all that is problematic in Ms. Akalaitis's "In the Summer House," the rare bird that wrote it is still there to be heard, beating her bright and crippled wings.
There are moments, many of them in fact, when Jane Bowles' 1953 play "In the Summer House" is as misty and pleasant as a sea breeze in June. And just as ungraspable. Dialogue that could, in one reading, be played entirely for laughs can, with a slight directorial spin, carry the gothic humidity of Tennessee Williams. Embracing this will-o'-the-wisp is no easy feat for an audience, even in a production as visually arresting as the one staged by JoAnne Akalaitis.
Its influences painterly as well as literary, Akalaitis' "Summer House" opts not to nail Bowles' impressionistic meanderings to the stage, but rather to attempt to suggest, in light, whispery strokes, the loneliness and despair that is this play's heart. Not for nothing does this overly delicate production have more scrims than Salome had veils.
And with Philip Glass' discordant, cello-heavy music, the elements of this production should form a perfect union. Akalaitis' surrealist vision --the set is dominated by a twisted, gnarled tree-size vine that looks melted over the stage by Dali -- would seem to be what Bowles' problematic play has been waiting for all these years. The wait, unfortunately, isn't over. If the production does well by the play's few strengths, it also conspires to exaggerate the work's weaknesses: Both production and play are diffuse, muddy-minded and neither as profound or poignant as their creators would seem to believe.
In a milieu that Bowles' compadre Tennessee Williams would later crib for "The Night of the Iguana,""Summer House" unfolds along the coast of California's deep south. Gertrude Eastman Cuevas (Dianne Wiest) is the selfish, unloving mother who lives in a shabby-chic beach house with troubled daughter Molly (Alina Arenal). While mother dreams of escaping the stagnancy of her life via marriage to a businessman, daughter craves the maternal love she has never had. Molly spends much of her time in the small summer house that serves as the play's central metaphor for human isolation.
This tragic mother-daughter relationship is reflected, in converse, in the form of Vivian Constable (Kali Rocha), a boarder of the financially strapped Cuevas, and her mother (Frances Conroy). Mrs. Constable is forever begging for the elusive love of her selfish, unstable daughter. The pathetic, and by play's end entirely defeated, Mrs. Constable is, Bowles seems to be saying, the almost certain fate of Molly.
But it's Mrs. Constable and Gertrude who sit slumped and broken at play's end. Has Molly, in running off with husband Lionel (Liev Schreiber), escaped this lonely destiny?
Nothing in the depiction of her marriage, presented here as marked with the same lack of love and connection as every other relationship in the play, would offer much hope. And here lies the major flaw of both Bowles and Akalaitis: Lacking the genius of Beckett or Chekhov (two obvious influences that Akalaitis superfluously mentions in her production notes), "Summer House" too often seems little more than an extended and lifeless exercise in the fashionable pessimism of a weekend bohemian.
That said, the exercise has at least been given a careful going-over. If Akalaitis fails to stun her audience with the visual sweep of her "'Tis Pity She's a Whore," she nonetheless offers a work that carries her vision from beginning to end. George Tsypin's expansive and lovely seaside set, Ann Hould-Ward's attractive costumes and Jennifer Tipton's lush lighting are in keeping with the lyrical tone set by the director.
The performances are less steady. Conroy's boozy Mrs. Constable is the only breakout smash; her energy, both comic and tragic, dwarfs everything else on stage. Wiest's oddly mannered style is better suited to the second act, when the stoical facade of her Gertrude begins to crumble. Arenal is fine as the troubled Molly, but Rocha seems to have been instructed to play the flighty Vivian as a bratty Valley Girl, and the result is gratingly ill-fitting. Likewise, Schreiber , a promising young actor, has been directed to underplay his already sketchy role.
Akalaitis tosses in broad comic flourishes, which seem like odd-shaped pieces of driftwood dotting an interminably long, scorched stretch of beach.