Reviewed by Bob Verini
Coeurage Theatre Company
Through March 12
In the vast scheme of Tennessee Williams’ long career, the 1978 Vieux Carré stands as one of his lesser plays, derivative and ill-shaped. Among the works of his final two decades, however, it’s one which can still credibly command a stage if given a vigorous and mature production. The Coeurage Theatre Company, operating out of the the Historic Lankershim Arts Center in NoHo, only partly rises to that challenge in the current revival.
The play conforms in numerous specific details to the facts of Williams’ life as laid down in his Memoirs and other writings. In the late 1930s, Williams, like his stand-in principal character “The Writer,” played here by Jay Lee, fled a contentious family situation in St. Louis for New Orleans, settling into a shabby rooming house in the French Quarter. Living hand to mouth, he endeavored to make close observations of the world’s hopefuls, down-and-outers, and predators and get them into stories, while exploring the homosexuality with which he had had only limited experience before coming to the Big Easy.
We get taken down “The Writer’s Memory Lane; and if you’ve seen one or more other Tennessee Williams plays, it’ll be your Memory Lane too. Here are all the types you’ve run into plenty of times: the brutish stud who treats women like meat; the fragile Southern belles living on table scraps and plantation reveries; the frumpy harridan landlady castigating her tenants in her torn, dirty slip; the hot young boys in tight jeans, pursued by the elderly nellie painter sashaying around in long johns and a fur-collared flowered wrapper. Welcome to Williamsland, the big difference being that in the earlier works these selfsame characters were dynamic and bursting with life. As beaten down as they might have been, they were still never say die in trying to work their way back.
But by the time they’ve made it to Vieux Carré, they’re on their last stand; these characters ruminate tediously while staying firmly, even relentlessly, in place. Very little occurs in almost three hours of running time, none of it particularly surprising or riveting. Late in Act 1, Williams brings in someone we’ve never heard of and never see again: a porno photographer in the basement, just so the landlady can pour boiling water onto his studio through a convenient hole in the floor, causing a ruckus that has neither thematic resonance nor dramatic purpose. It could be the lamest bit of plotting in Williams’ playwrighting career, but it’s all the engine Vieux Carré possesses for quite a while.
Making this stuff work requires sizzling performances with gusto, and the Coeurage revival sports a few such. Sammi Smith and Shaun Taylor-Corbett have something specific going on as, respectively, career gal Jane Fox and burlesque house barker Tye McCool; it’s pretty gripping as he gradually degrades her through drugs and kinky sex.
Leontine Guilliard’s wonderfully cranky Creole Nursie grabs attention whenever she waddles in to take a stand for peace and quiet, and Jonathan Kells Phillips conveys an offhandedly sensual ease as Sky, the itinerant clarinetist who holds out an escape route to the hungry young Writer.
As the rococo, tubercular painter, Dieterich Gray is an interesting case: When he’s standing or moving, his arms and hands are all over the place and he seems inauthentic — but the moment he sits down, his line deliveries and style are really wonderful.
Beyond their generally skillful underplaying, all the aforementioned actors share a firm handle on their lines, a boast that the rest of the company, alas, could not make on opening night. Nothing is more necessary to the florid romanticism of Tennessee Williams than the conviction that these characters (a) are just making this stuff up on the fly and (b) literally need to express themselves in exactly these terms.
When principal actors are visibly struggling for their words, I’m afraid the game is up as far as a Williams piece is concerned. At one point the likable but wholly out-of-period Lee, struggling with an in-and-out Southern accent (as if that’s what we came for!), stumbled on one of the author’s tongue twisters and smiled as if to say, “Yeah, they’re making me say this, and it’s sure not easy.”
Director Jeremy Lelliott and his team have lots of excellent framing ideas, some of which work splendidly. The challenge of conveying the movement and levels of a three-story building, on a tiny, essentially one-level surface, is artfully met; 702 Toulouse St. seems to teem with life we cannot see but can detect. JR Bruce’s set puts hanging grillework and tattered lace curtains to excellent effect, and Brandon Baruch’s lighting is a flat-out home run, separating night from day (harder than it sounds, with so few lighting instruments) and incorporating a variety of eerie, expressionistic effects.
Lelliott’s big brainstorm is to have two actors visible upstage performing sound effects as if on an old-time radio show (creaking doors and so forth), but that gimmick has a ways to go yet. The device is not cleanly introduced, so we only gradually become aware of it. And despite a microphone and speakers, many of the sound effects are so hard to hear they might not have been performed at all. There’s also a lot of diegetic (visibly sourced) sound going on. But why is one effect (footsteps; a pot slamming) performed by onstage characters, while another (water falling; a match lighting) is executed onstage? Such questions, of course, just throw one further out of the play.
If and when those effects get balanced, and the entire cast knows and owns their words, this Vieux Carré will be sharper and even more worth a visit. It will also likely run closer to the promised 2:10 plus intermission than the 2:45 total at the opening.
But I’m afraid it will still be Vieux Carré, a play whose weakness its very author seemed to confess when he had his avatar warn, “The cash which is the stuff you use in your work can be overdrawn, depleted, like a reservoir going dry in a long season of drought.”
The Historic Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood; Thurs-Sat, 8 p.m.; through Mar. 12. (323) 944-2165 or www.coeurage.org/vieuxcarre. Running time: two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.