Monday, August 5, 2013

Tennessee Williams’s Swan Song: The Two-Character Play

In its current form – that is, as it’s being performed by Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif at New World Stages in New York – The Two-Character Play was the last work Tennessee Williams produced; it opened in 1975. But he struggled with it for nearly a decade; quite different versions of it appeared in London in 1967, in Chicago in 1971 (under the title Out Cry), and in New York in 1973. It’s a meta-theatrical psychodrama about a pair of co-dependent siblings, Felice and Clare, down-on-their-luck actors who tour around the country in repertory. As the play begins they find themselves in some dilapidated theatre on their own (their staff having quit on them after weeks, or perhaps months, of working without salary), performing a piece, written by Felice, simply called The Two-Character Play. The play within the play is also about a brother and sister, also named Felice and Clare, agoraphobic recluses living in their childhood home in the South after their parents’ violent deaths.

The Two-Character Play, which shows the heavy influence of Beckett and especially of Waiting for Godot, certainly sounds like Williams, but it isn’t very good; it’s both rambling and strained. You don’t get drawn into the hermetic world of Clare and Felice the way you get pulled into the run-down motel-room existence of The Man and The Woman in Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen, another two-hander and one of the playwright’s early one-acts. Here we hardly need to be told that the play is a metaphor for life or that at the end, after the (invisible) audience has departed, the characters are going to be locked in the theatre, holding onto each other for dear life as the last special fades. Yet you can understand why a couple of adventurous, unconventional actors like Dourif and Plummer (who proposed the project to Dourif) would want to explore it, and it’s worth seeing the production, which Gene David Kirk directed, for their performances.

The stage directions in the published script indicate that both characters are of uncertain age, that they have “a quality of youth without being young,” and that happens to be true of both these actors, whose gnomish faces appear to have retarded the aging process. Dourif is sixty-three and looks barely fifty; Plummer is fifty-six and looks like she’s in her mid-forties. He wears his hair long, swept behind his ears, and it pools into a curl at his neck, apparently of its own accord. Hers is a straw-colored mop that sets off her tiny, glittering eyes. Both Felice and Clare are completely theatrical creatures, defined as much by gesture as by the oddness of their language and the symbiotic nature of their quibbling/adoring relationship, and perhaps the one shortcoming in Dourif’s work here is that he lacks an old-world stage-bound grandeur. But he has such a distinctive, uncategorizable presence that you might call him unconsciously theatrical, and his weirdness compensates for what he’s missing. It’s what has kept him working for four decades, though he seldom lands the sort of material he deserves – material that, like this play, draws out his sensitivity and not just his penchant for playing creeps. (He’s probably best known for the HBO series Deadwood, for playing Wormtongue in the Lord of the Rings pictures, and of course for his performance as Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.)

Plummer is the child of Christopher Plummer and Tammy Grimes, and she’s inherited her father’s magnetism and her mother’s smoky, moonstruck voice and waifishness. She’s one of a kind, which is the reason she hasn’t fared well in movies, though in the right role she can be marvelous on camera (Cattle Annie and Little Britches, The Fisher King). Early in her stage career I saw her play the title role in Agnes of God on Broadway, and she was astonishing; she shared the stage with a witty Geraldine Page and a scenery-munching Elizabeth Ashley, but you couldn’t concentrate on either of them when she was on stage. Ashley got the final bow, which she took like a grande dame, and the friend I was with, an aspiring actress, was so incensed that this phenomenal talent was being upstaged that I thought she was going to hurl her playbill at the stage. Plummer was even better as Jo in a New York revival of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey a couple of years later, but you don’t often get to see her these days. And she’s not always at her best, even in roles you’d guess she could hit out of the ball park, like Joan of Arc in Anouilh’s The Lark (which she performed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada) and Alma in Williams’s Summer and Smoke (Hartford Stage). In that show she was mostly mannered, though her final scene had a frightening intensity that justified the entire evening. As the druggy, high-handed diva in The Two-Character Play, who spits when the press are mentioned and alludes to the audience as “a house full of furious, unfed apes,” she’s both potent and raucous, and you believe that Clare is only fully alive within the confines of that stage. She has some riveting dramatic moments, especially Clare’s retreat into the house in the play within the play after Felice has succeeded in coaxing her out as far as the porch, but sometimes just the way she inhabits the stage is mesmerizing. I love the way she looks when she lounges on the sofa, her legs splayed, a cigarette stuck in her mouth as if she were a tough dame out of some 1932 Warner Brothers picture and a tiara in her hair. The contrast is hilarious but you don’t question the jewel: she’s theatrical royalty, after all. Her performance reminds you what that means.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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