It’s tempting to see Tennessee Williams’s haunted house in Vieux Carre as a mausoleum for past work, old characters, faded themes, and drying talent. There’s the mother/son acrimony we know from The Glass Menagerie. Here’s the brute/gentlewoman relationship from A Streetcar Named Desire. The story of the champagne girl is reminiscent of the cannibalism in Suddenly, Last Summer. The jazz, the alcohol, the codependence, the love of lust, New Orleans—we’ve heard and seen it all before, better. Then something happens in the current production of Vieux Carre at the Pearl Theatre that’s very rare. The force of the director/writer vision doesn’t dissipate at intermission; an ugly yellow film continues to cling to the theatre after the lights rise. The woman on the aisle talks about becoming an Ikebana flower designer in her retirement: it occurs to me that she is as suspect as the lost genteel ladies in the play, lying about scavenging for food–or the old fag making excuses about his art, job, and cough.
The inclination to feel sorry for “dear” or “poor” Tennessee Williams and his late commercial failures, as well as his accidental death, is a way to make sentimental or acceptable his continued shameful revolt in the theatre. Tennessee Williams’s vision, whether or not he’s wearing a white suit and hat, smoking a cigar and sporting a goatee, however, should make you sick to your stomach. It should make everyday conversation suspect. The plays should be, as one old Southern acquaintance used to tell me without enthusiasm, “depressing.” It’s a way of seeing life that should always be tested very hard, though, because it is so strong, it is so pessimistic, so insistent on scraping away illusions; it’s so penetrating and hopeless, so without choice and so convincing. That’s what Austin Pendleton has brought up from the morgue: the vitality of the vanquished and the dangerous supposition that Williams’s view isn’t an illusion itself.
Don’t try to call the playwright out on structure, however. Williams’s Vieux Carre is not motorized–it’s central character doesn’t have much of a compelling desire to do much except to write and survive (still the character learns so much in the boarding house about humanity that he blurts at one point, “I should pay tuition”). A very precise, contained actor named Sean McNall plays the Williams stand-in role of The Writer. Interestingly, he seems to know that there’s an undercurrent of meanness developing underneath the part, an intension to hold back and not give (except memories and a late sexual favor to a dying man). The actor has a wide forehead, high hair combed back straight, as well as the smooth skin Williams calls for and the ability to seem more a youth than a man at 28. The play may seem talky toward the end with a last-minute melodramatic punch (a letter arrives telling us about low blood counts). But the sexual conflict between Jane (Rachel Botchan) and Tye (Joseph Collins) is ratcheted up by physicality (and frontal nudity) that weren’t allowed to be shown or written about directly in A Streetcar Named Desire—you’ll also feel these characters are related to Catherine and Goober, not Brick, in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof). Additionally, McNall and the landlady, Mrs. Wire (Carol Schultz) are allowed to take off their gloves in a way that would never be right for Tom and Amanda—yet it seems a continuation of the struggle in The Glass Menagerie. That’s what Vieux Carre is—an exploration, an extension, not a bad copy, of earlier concerns taken further, given a contemporary, not postwar sensibility. Pendleton has dragged this D.O.A. play right into today’s modernity—although I’d still like to know who was brave enough to propose Williams (and this Williams—not one of the war horses) in the middle of the current American recession. Because of the lack of a single onstage, specific plot, however, some may claim that the work is a tone poem–but you be the one to tell Tennessee Williams he doesn’t know how to write drama, not me. Let’s assume that this is the play that Tennessee Williams wanted to write (in the dark and in the rain)—and didn’t want to improve. He wanted an ensemble piece, he wanted memories from his younger (the play was started in 1939) and older selves, and he knew how to intersperse specific poetry and flare ups to keep our attention. Thankfully, he’s finally found the collaborators he needed in 1977.
–© 2009, Bob Shuman
The Pearl Theatre Company
Directed by Austin Pendleton
"BEAUTIFUL REVIVAL…Pendleton's staging is like the best choreography: graphic and clear." – Hilton Als, The New Yorker
Critics and audiences have been showering the production with praise. NYTheatre.com referred to it as “very possibly the most beautiful play on stage in New York City right now, Vieux Carré is a treat for Williams fans and theatre fans of every stripe. Do not miss it.” Time Out New York stated that this play holds “a lyrical luster—especially in Austin Pendleton’s affecting and engaging revival.”
Vieux Carré thrusts the audience into the deep shadows of a dilapidated New Orleans boarding house. The play is a raw and vulnerable look into a world of outcasts and their mechanisms for survival. Nowhere does Williams more intimately explore his own sexual identity, his own journey from man to artist than in Vieux Carré. He invokes the beauty and fragility of love, and the wounds it inflicts; the terror of death and the necessity of hope, the importance of memory and the longing to bury the past.
Pearl Theatre 80 St. Mark's Place, NY, NY 10001