You have to worry when the best new American play so far this season was written in 1938. Tennessee Williams' rediscovered early work "Not About Nightingales" is, for that reason, both exciting and depressing.
Exciting because it adds to the reputation of one of America's greatest playwrights. Depressing because the first awkward stirrings of Williams' genius are so much more ambitious than anything that's being done today.
"Not About Nightingales" was rejected by the Group Theatre in 1938 and remained unperformed until Vanessa Redgrave found the script in 1996. It is not, however, a lost masterpiece.
The play is a raw, sprawling dramatization of real events at a Philadelphia prison. The inmates went on a hunger strike to protest their poor diet. Four of them died in the dreaded "Klondike," a punishment cell heated with scalding steam.
Williams tells this story in unflinching detail. But he also weaves in a complex love affair between Canary Jim, a sensitive prisoner who wants to be a writer, and Eva, a naive girl who's the warden's secretary.
It's easy to see why the play was turned down in 1938. In three hours of action, it uses two dozen characters and requires a particularly complex set.
And there is a huge gulf of skill between the rookie who wrote "Not About Nightingales" and the master who emerged with "The Glass Menagerie" seven years later.
Instead of the tough lyricism of the mature Williams, there are overblown attempts at poetry. The cruelty and violence that pulse beneath the surface of a play like "A Streetcar Named Desire" are all on the surface here.
The key character of Boss Whalen, the warden, is poorly developed. Hints of what might lie behind his sadism and lechery emerge too late to allow even so strong an actor as Corin Redgrave to get much beyond the familiar movie stereotype.
Yet, for all these faults, "Nightingales" seizes the imagination. It is full of the dark sexuality and repressed desire of Williams' best plays. It creates an utterly believable world in which everyone is at the mercy of a corrupt and inhumane system. Most important, the play burns with passion, conviction and moral outrage. It reminds us that great drama starts, not with skill and technique, but with a writer who cares deeply about his society.
Trevor Nunn's production works because it keeps that core of anger at the center of the action. On Richard Hoover's superb set of grey steel bars and grids, the actors create a gripping sense of caged and tormented humanity.
Two performances are central. Finbar Lynch's Canary Jim is a remarkable mixture of cynicism and deep yearning. James Black as the convict leader Butch O'Fallon manages to be at once a vicious thug and a twisted dreamer. Both embody the struggle of dignity against despair that animates all of Williams' best work.
Nunn's production supplies the shape and discipline that the writing lacks while preserving the vision and the emotion that mark it as the product of a great dramatist.
Sadly, a young playwright submitting this play to a theater today probably would be told that it's too big, too ambitious, too impassioned. And what chance could there be that that young writer would go on to become Tennessee Williams?
Hell has no colors in the infernal world of ''Not About Nightingales.'' In the director Trevor Nunn's enthralling interpretation of this tormented, long-lost drama by the young Tennessee Williams, which is only now making its New York debut, existence has been sapped of all hues but gray, black and white.
The island prison in which this work takes place, as conjured by the designer Richard Hoover in the intense, vivid production that opened last night at the Circle in the Square Theater, transmutes even an American flag, a child's rubber duck and a woman's blouse that is said to be chartreuse into the same bleak grisaille. Color is found only in real life, and what's going on in the tomblike, airless environment of ''Not About Nightingales'' is an antilife, composed, as one character puts it, of ''memories, shadows, ghosts.'' It is just one step away from death. It is even closer to madness.
Thomas Lanier Williams 3d, who would soon adopt the nom de plume Tennessee, was still waiting for his life to begin when he wrote this fascinatingly conflicted melodrama at age 27. He was staying, miserably, with his parents in Depression-era St. Louis, in the attic room of a house that had become, he wrote, frightening to him, and he had little hope in his future as a writer.
His journal entries from that time are filled with images of incarceration and escape, of claustrophobia and birds in flight. It was in this state of mind that he composed the play that at one point had the working title ''Hell.'' ''It may be very good or very bad,'' he wrote. ''I don't know.''
It is, in fact, both. ''Not About Nightingales,'' inspired by newspaper accounts of atrocities in a Pennsylvania prison, is the work of a man still unsure of his voice, writing to meet contemporary tastes in the polemical manner of Clifford Odets. (He submitted the play without success to Odets's producers at the Group Theater in New York.) On one level it closely follows the formulas of gritty, behind-bars movies like ''The Big House'' (1930), formulas that were already growing stale. There are definitely moments to wince over in ''Nightingales''; in the wrong hands it could emerge as a shrill piece of camp.
Yet just as the prisoners in the play chafe against the oppression of an inhuman institution, Williams twists and turns within the self-imposed confines of his generic plot, finally breaking through it with an agonized lyricism that is all his own. The young Tom Williams, whose beloved sister had recently been committed to a mental home, knew what it was like to feel shut out by life and to fear the loss of reason. A feverish, full-strength compassion for people in cages makes ''Nightingales'' fly toward a realm of pain and beauty that is the province of greatness.
Any hint of condescension or academic irony would destroy ''Not About Nightingales,'' as surely as the unicorn figurine in Williams's ''Glass Menagerie'' is shattered by a clumsy visitor. That danger is carefully avoided by Mr. Nunn, his actors and his production team, who match Williams's empathy with unconditional commitment and passion.This loving, careful and precisely gauged interpretation nurtures the work into the full-blown life it deserves. If there were a Lazarus award for acts of resurrection in theater, this production would surely take the prize of the decade.
''Nightingales'' was first seen at the Royal National Theater in London, where Mr. Nunn is the new artistic director. The rights to the work had been acquired by the Moving Theater, which was created by Corin Redgrave, who stars here as the brutal warden, and his sister Vanessa, who tracked down the manuscript after finding references to it during research for her role in Williams's ''Orpheus Descending'' in the 1980's. This staged version is a collaboration among the National, the Moving Theater and the Alley Theater of Houston, where I first saw this production last year.
It was a revelation then, but in the succeeding months the show has taken on an even greater fluidity and dramatic momentum. Any stiffness or self-consciousness within the cast, a mixture of American and British performers, has been shed.
The actors make no wry apologies for characters who are, at least in their outlines, potboiler cliches. Even when the play drifts into the threadbare conventions of melodrama, and it does again and again, you are never tempted to snicker. The members of the ensemble here seem to believe so utterly in what they're doing that you have no choice but to go along with them.
As in so many prison melodramas, a hunger strike is the pivot of the plot, initiated here in response to an unvarying, ptomaine-inducing diet of spaghetti and meatballs. It is carried out by the usual lineup of cellblock archetypes, overseen by Mr. Redgrave's despotic warden.
There's Butch O'Fallon (James Black), the tough, domineering self-appointed leader of the strike; his strapping, less dynamic lieutenant, Joe (J. P. Linton), and the cock-sure, soon-to-be-crushed new boy, nicknamed Swifty (Mark Dexter). There are also the good-hearted Ollie (Dion Graham), sent to prison for stealing food to feed his family, and the sensitive and effeminate inmate, inevitably named the Queen (Jude Akuwudike), who delivers the quintessentially Williams declaration that ''all my life I've been persecuted by people because I'm refined.''
Before these disparate men looms, in addition to the habitual beatings administered by the guards, the threat of consignment to ''Klondike,'' a boiler room lined with steam radiators. (In the real-life events that inspired ''Nightingales,'' four men were cooked to death in such a chamber.) Klondike is the ultimate metaphor in the play's chain of images of suffocation, entombment and isolation, and the climate of fear it engenders is what gives the play its toxic life's blood.
In this increasingly claustrophobic world of deprivation, where the music of a passing cruise ship named the Lorelei drifts sirenlike through the prison windows, a taunting embodiment of freedom, no one is sure of his own senses anymore.
The specter of Sailor Jack (Matthew Floyd Miller), who has already gone ''stir-bugs'' when the play begins, hovers as an omen of an all-too-possible destiny for everyone in the play.
Another convict, Jim Allison (the excellent Finbar Lynch), a self-taught intellectual and the warden's flunky, finds his hands shaking from repression. The warden's pretty, plucky young secretary, Eva Crane (Sherri Parker Lee), will be driven to attempt suicide before the evening is over.
Even the lecherous, sadistic warden, Boss Whelan (Mr. Redgrave), has a moment in which he contemplates the degree to which his mind has been poisoned by his profession.
This inescapable, haunted anxiety is what makes ''Nightingales'' more than a lurid pulp tale on the one hand or a rancorous soapbox oration on the other. And the actors here unfailingly locate the fracturing crack in their characters' plaster personas. This is by no means an imposition but an elucidation of what is indeed in Williams's script.
Unlike similar heroines of the same era, Eva, played with refreshing straightforwardness by Ms. Lee, is able to admit her fascination as well as her repulsion for the predatory Whalen, anticipating the sexual ambivalence of the Blanches and Almas to come in the Williams canon.
Mr. Black gives convincing life to the poetic longings within Butch, embodied by the dream apparition of his dance hall sweetheart (Sandra Searles Dickinson), as well as his self-admiring machismo.
Mr. Redgrave and Mr. Lynch, as the respective embodiments of the play's social evils and its social conscience, are outstanding. Mr. Redgrave tempers Whalen's bilious cruelty and sinister, good-old-boy glee with a sweaty, humanizing anxiety.
And Mr. Lynch infuses every gesture with a sense of suppressed, self-cannibalizing energy that gives a startling credibility to even his baldest thematic speeches. If you want to grasp the soul of the play, you need only focus on Mr. Lynch's sharp, restless eyes, which bespeak an intelligence that is as much a curse as a blessing.
I have never known the awkward theatrical space that is Circle in the Square to be used as effectively as it is here, with the prisoners marching in lock step through the aisles and the guards suddenly materializing at your side. Mr. Nunn's staging extends the prison's boundaries to embrace the audience, further inhibiting any safe sense of a spectator's distance.
You're stirred, against your will, when Mr. Graham rises to his feet to lead the prisoners in a hymn of protest at meal time. When a searchlight interrupts a sexual tryst between Jim and Eva, you somehow feel personally violated.
Rendering the play visually in shades of black and white is a masterstroke, carried out with devious subtlety not only in Mr. Hoover's single, ingeniously versatile set but in Karyl Newman's period costumes and Chris Parry's crepuscular lighting, in which even the shadows have oppressive substance. The color scheme and the use of projected scene-setting supertitles bring to mind old movies and newspaper photographs, an acknowledgment of the play's status as artifact.
Yet as the evening proceeds, it seems to overflow with colors set pulsingly in relief by the stark frame of its setting.
Williams's palette was never monochrome. The emotions, both savage and painfully delicate, that saturate his work are arguably more rich and varied in tone than those of any American dramatist.
The colors are in the voices of Williams's entrapped nightingales, which are what these characters are despite the demurral of the title. They are colors that refuse to fade when the play is plunged into its concluding darkness.
The color scheme of "Not About Nightingales" is exclusively a cinematic black and white, but this spectacular production is so vividly realized you may not notice until a character describes her gray blouse as chartreuse. Its somber hues notwithstanding, there's nothing drab about this exciting discovery, a heretofore unproduced play by Tennessee Williams that is manifestly not a piece of juvenilia for which generous allowances need be made. In Trevor Nunn's brilliantly theatrical staging, it's revealed as a stark and compelling -- if avowedly melodramatic -- exploration of themes Williams would later treat in a more refined and delicate manner.
A happier return to business for the long-dark Circle in the Square couldn't be imagined. Nunn's production, which arrives on Broadway after acclaimed stints at London's National Theater and the Alley Theater in Houston, makes terrific use of the theater's unusual layout. Williams' play, written when he was 27 and recently discovered by the enterprising Vanessa Redgrave, whose brother Corin stars, is set entirely inside a prison on an island in an unspecified American location (the accents and our knowledge of Williams would suggest the Deep South). It was inspired by newspaper accounts of a real inmate uprising that revealed monstrous details of a Philadelphia prison's disciplinary measures.
Set designer Richard Hoover brings us right inside the prison -- indeed the long thrust stage of the Circle in the Square turns the audience itself into the prison's walls. At one end of the playing area looms a labyrinth of cells; at the other is the office of the vile prison warden, "Boss" Whalen (Corin Redgrave). A giant window in Whalen's office, through which only penumbral light passes, is the only indication that there's a world outside this dim vortex of human brutality.
Williams' protagonist, a prototype of the sensitive, fate-haunted young men that would recur throughout his oeuvre, is prisoner Jim Allison (Finbar Lynch). A decade as both victim of and witness to the viciousness of the penal system has tarnished Jim's ideals, but his spirit still wants to soar. In a speech that thrillingly reveals Williams' earthy, lyrical voice already coming into its own, Jim extols the indomitable freedom of the mind: "As long as man can think as he pleases he's never exactly locked up anywhere. He can think himself outside of all their walls and boundaries and make the world his place to live in... It's like being alone on top of a mountain at night with nothing around you but stars. Only you're not alone, 'cause you know that you're part of everything living and everything living is part of you."
Although he's anxiously attuned to the possibility of imminent parole, Jim is caught in a vise that gets tighter as the play progresses. In exchange for certain liberties, he works in Boss Whalen's office helping produce propaganda that hides the warden's criminal negligence from the outside world, a soul-corroding job that nevertheless allows him to strike up a friendship with Eva Crane (Sherri Parker Lee), a pretty blonde who works as Whalen's new secretary.
But Jim's apparent collusion with the warden has earned him the nickname Canary Jim and the undying enmity of Butch O'Fallon (James Black), the brutish kingpin of the prisoners. When the miserable food inspires Butch to stage a hunger strike, the maniacal Whalen tosses the entire cell block into the Klondike, a fearsomely hot torture chamber, and Jim's ultimate allegiance is put to a violent test.
Nunn's direction has the vigor of a great film noir, hurtling past the young author's occasional longueur or strained exchange with breathtaking finesse. Voices echo eerily, doors slam shut with metallic finality, guards roam the aisles emitting piercing whistles. Chris Parry's exquisitely dramatic lighting is used with cinematic flair, smoothly and quickly moving the action among the various playing areas. The jazz-inflected music of Steven Edis and Christopher Shutt's detailed sound design alternately ease and exacerbate the disturbing tension of the play.
All the actors -- a mix of British and American thesps -- give performances that match the pungency of the production. They find both the simple emotional truth and the surefire dramatic potency of situations that sometimes stray perilously close to prison-movie cliches. Redgrave's Boss Whalen is so lifelike a picture of debauchery you can fairly smell the booze on his breath. The queasy menace of his predatory advances toward Eva produces real shivers. Black's Butch O'Fallon is likewise a convincingly human monster, heedless of the cost his power play will have on his fellow inmates. Lynch and Lee are mostly excellent in more nuanced roles, though their scenes include some of Williams' more juvenile poetic attempts, and their characters' relationship is used somewhat hamfistedly to bring the play to a climax.
The play's title alludes to Jim's scorn for Keats' famous ode; Jim vows that when he gets out of prison, his voice will be heard, but he won't be talking about nightingales. Theatrical history's irony, of course, is that it was in fact nightingales that Williams would specialize in -- the delicate birds of humanity searching the dark world for a safe haven (a revised version of the play "Summer and Smoke" would even be called "The Eccentricities of a Nightingale").
Williams wouldn't again treat such overtly polemical subject matter, but he'd always be drawn to the primal battle at the root of "Not About Nightingales," so incisively captured in this production: the eternal conflict between the cruel rulers of an indifferent world and the tender creatures, crushed but noble in their allegiance to beauty and kindness, that must try to survive in it.