Of all the mighty who've fallen, few writers have plunged from the heavens to the earth with more force and ferocity than Tennessee Williams. For the man whose revolutionary look at family life and (however veiled) homosexuality defined Broadway drama in the 1940s and '50s, his later career was consumed by a dizzying selection of baffling plays that tried (and almost universally failed) to help him regain the prominence and position his The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof afforded him earlier in his career.
To get a first-hand look at what might be Williams's personal Ground Zero, you need only travel as far as the Abingdon Theatre Company's Black Box Theatre. That's where the White Horse Theater Company is presenting a rare revival of Williams's In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, which premiered in New York in 1969 and has been all but forgotten since. If, however, you're hoping to discover anew an unjustly lost classic, think again.
Though the play falls squarely into Williams's more "experimental" period, featuring punchier, clipped dialogue in place of his famously flowing speeches, it's still packed with the kinds of ideas and florid writing that have always defined Williams's singular style of poetic-realism. The American woman, Miriam (Laura Siner), and her husband Mark (Niall O'Hegarty) are themselves Williams archetypes: the caged woman biting at the bars while the man twirls the keys to freedom just out of her reach. That he's a collapsing artist slowly being killed by the intensity of colors he's trying to control is par for the course - more important is that, in living or dying, he's dragging Miriam down right along with him.
To ease her woes, she's given to lubricating herself in... well, you know the play's title. With only the young, attractive Japanese bar-man (Toshiji Takeshima) to talk to, and to vent her frustrations with, the stage is set for the kind of booze-fueled, meditative deconstruction of the romantic soul that - as Williams himself taught us - can only lead to destruction or salvation, assuming it's possible to distinguish the two.
Yet Williams addresses none of this in sharper or more perceptive ways than in his other plays, leaving his ramblings about tortured artists and their even-more-tortured love ones to feel like tired retreads from a playwright who was never better than when he was breaking ground. Director Cyndy A. Marion has tried to amplify this with the theaterís inherently claustrophobic qualities, by bringing the audience within inches of the action and encouraging some lines to be spoken directly to individual audience members. But even at that range, the play and performers - one in particular - keep us at a more-than-discrete distance.
In the way she prowls about Mark's feelings and the bar-man's body, Miriam sees her struggle as no less life-or-death than Maggie sees her own unjust imprisonment in a faltering marriage in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Miriam might well be Maggie 15 years down the line, after giving up and giving in have become the default answers to every question. But for the story of her yearning for liberation to pierce and move us, we need to see in her the slowly wilting flower who can't bear competition from the blooms in the vases on the bar's tables. ("A cut flower is unavoidably a dying flower," she says, not realizing the state of her own stem is nothing worth bragging about.)
Siner's portrayal doesn't reflect any part of this - she's not only redoubtably strong, she's practically unbreakable in her resolve, which never leaves much question as to whether she'll find the personal reserves to achieve her goal. Her smart, flawlessly matched outfits (from costume designer David B. Thompson) suggest a woman far too together to be driven to the brink of emotional and sexual insanity by a crazy husband who churns out works she considers "circus-colored mudpies." Siner has taken far too literally Miriam's descriptions of herself as a woman of vitality with an impressive ability to adjust to new people and situations; these are self-deceptions, not self-observations.
Worse, she has a startlingly shaky command of her lines. While Williams dialogue traditionally follows the sweeping strokes of a knife slowly disemboweling its prey, here it takes the form of a fully loaded machine gun, and must be delivered with exactly that unrelenting speed and precision. Siner's inability to pick up on cues, especially from O'Hegarty's eternal target Mark, forces the play to move in stops and starts and prevents it from drawing the blood that should be all but drowning those onstage by eveningís end.
Thus, appraising Siner's castmates - who also include Larissa Laurel as a laid-back Hawaiian observer to Miriam's breakdown and Greg Homison as a trusted family friend - is difficult. O'Hegarty's tics, tremors, and pointedly scattered line readings occasionally make him seem too overtly out of his mind, but his strength dissolves over the course of the evening just as it should for a man who's losing his ability to hold onto life. But without the visibly violent last gasps of desperate recrimination his constant arguments with Miriam should provide, it's hard to tell if he can believably reach his character's final resting place (so to speak) that way.
Takeshima's character, on the other hand, is built almost exclusively from the annoyance the suffocating Miriam evokes, and his contributions - in both words and loaded gazes - tell us more about Miriam and Mark's struggle than we're ever likely to learn from them. But overriding the bar-man's work life during the play is a dull sense of confusion about what's happening, why, and how he was drawn into this mess. Thatís probably why it's easier to relate to him than anyone else onstage.
In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel
Photo: Laura Siner and Niall O'Hegarty. Photo by Joe Bly.