Tennessee Williams’s rarely performed Orpheus Descending is being produced at St. John’s Lutheran Church in the West Village, directed by Austin Pendleton. The challenge is not a simple one—especially since the director is trying to cram a large-scale work into a chancel. The author-director meet-up is a flawed attraction to begin with—which also best describes the lust story at the center of the text. Harold Clurman, who directed the 1957 drama on Broadway, with Maureen Stapleton and Cliff Robertson, wondered what kind of love this was. Williams then implied that the lead male, Val (Todd d’Amour), was only casually interested in the heroine, Lady (Irene Glezos). This takes nothing away from Williams’s point that human beings are starkly alone, but it garners little sympathy for the characters, despite the role of Lady having been written for a force of nature: Anna Magnani. Williams apparently also wrote the play (a recasting of his early work, a bomb in Boston, called Battle of Angels) with Elvis Presley in mind as the guitar-strumming Val. After A Streetcar Named Desire, the writer wanted Brando to play the lead (Brando is in the 1960 movie version, The Fugitive Kind, a dark, hot, and sweaty retelling).
Where Williams and Pendleton noticeably overlap is in the improvisational nature of their work. Perhaps some of the problems with the late plays of Williams are that he is less rigid with his structuring than in, for example, A Streetcar Named Desire. Elia Kazan, of course, wanted Williams to change the ending of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (which he did) and Baby Doll (which he didn’t, and they fought about). Orpheus Descending reinforces Williams’s experimentalism—a transitional play that finds its own course in its own way. Viewers may sympathize with Todd d’Amour, as Val, because the machismo he is trying to relay is outmoded. D’Amour is in good physical condition, and he is up for the method acting, but his muttering and laughing to himself and eye blinking and eyebrow raising, may be more attuned for a larger space, as well as a different era. His depth of technique can remind of De Niro, but the work and William’s theme make him into the ultimate 50s loner—which only makes the play seem more remote for today. Both leads, of course, are taking on celebrity persona roles, as opposed to purely human ones. The scorched earth mother role of Lady can be beautiful and is, perhaps miswritten: Clurman noted that Lady is not actually Italian, like Anna Magnani, but Italian-American. Irene Glezos plays William’s Italian accent with sweat on her upper lip and around her eyes—pointing to the heat of the South and the character’s emotionality. Playing this relationship—a woman who cannot find love in a loveless world—awkwardly allows operatic heights. Ultimately, the audience is watching alienation, which is not grand enough for tragedy.
Pendleton is an actor’s director, who gives enormous latitude to those in his companies. At its best, his work can make those in the audience feel that they have been invited to a private acting class, which might bring fresh perspectives. Less interestingly, one can feel that the acting has come unhinged from the text and historical reality (Pendleton took the ghost out of his 2015 Hamlet, which included Peter Sarsgaard’s and Lisa Joyce’s do-your-own thing interpretations). Pendleton is more persuasive directing Williams, and he has assembled the right cast here with Keir Dullea (known for his Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Mia Dillon (Crimes of the Heart), and Brenda Currin (My Sister in This House), among others. Blame it on the church but, nevertheless, the blocking for Orpheus Descending lacks sharpness. Williams and Pendleton seem to be birds of a feather who can be accused of lacking shape and rigor in some of their work. Orpheus Descending has been reworked many times but has always eluded form—only Vanessa Redgrave seems to have come out the least trammeled, in her 1989 version. The play may finally be a prime example of the sacred slackness of art.
For more information and tickets visit: TWPTOWN.org/ORPHEUSNYC
© 2016 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.