The New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC)
Royalty isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in His Greatness, the supple and stirring play by Daniel MacIvor at the New York International Fringe Festival that looks at an evening in the (late) life of one of the erstwhile kings of the Broadway stage, Tennessee Williams.
Just don’t let Tennessee himself (Peter Goldfarb) hear you say that. Sequestered in a hotel suite in Vancouver, British Columbia, in the early 1980s, he may have been reduced to taking teaching gigs to finance his drinking and random play with the young men he still fervently desires, but in his heart he’s convinced he’s as unbreakable and indomitable as the most memorable and industrious of his characters. It’s the beautiful irony of MacIvor’s play, and this production of it that’s been directed by Tom Gualtieri, that Tennessee has already become as irreparably broken, as brittle, as barely hanging on as the greatest heroines he ever devised - and is becoming increasingly less able than they to surmount the adversity before him.
He’s antagonized by the very existence of Arthur Miller ("That play about the witches,” he barks, “I mean that’s just too easy”). He refuses to underestimate his own impact (“I helped create the modern world”). And he’s unwilling and unable to sacrifice his faith (“The Theatre is my Church; Art is my God”) just because others have stopped believing. And this is before the reviews of his newly written, or at least newly rewritten play, even hit on the night of this particular premiere. (The show is never named, but it’s ostensibly his 1980 revision of The Red Devil Battery Sign.) And when they do, the results are as shattering as a tumbling glass unicorn or the unveiling of a cancerous mendacity within the ranks of elite plantation gentility.
That’s the point at which the ruler would be dethroned, had he not abdicated his position long before. But it’s not Tennessee’s fading blue blood that drives the play, even given Goldfarb’s juicily evocative performance, which lilts with a boyish energy and embracing Southern manner aromatically at odds with the emotional and professional wreck the man has become. It’s as much the delusions of grandeur of two other men in Tennessee’s life, his assistant (Dan Domingues) and the aging escort (Michael Busillo) the assistant has brought in to accompany Tennessee to opening night and then to his bed. Like Tennessee, the younger men fancy themselves in complete control - the assistant of his boss’s affairs, the trick of others (thanks to his professed sexual prowess) - but are dependent on others granting them that power.
Hence the significance of the title, which MacIvor wields as a thrice-spat spear of disgust from one of them to another as a method of diminishing his imagined superiority. As the play unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that no one is better than anyone else - or even necessarily good at all. They’re equivalent on some level, perhaps - gay men living fearlessly in a world that hasn’t yet accepted them as mainstream - but they all seriously misjudge their influence and importance, with the result of their mutually assured (or at least uncomfortably likely) annihilation. The interplay of the three comes to represent resemble the way one critic describes Tennessee’s latest effort, “A dark and haunting vision of civilization on the brink of destruction,” but with subtle, colorful shadings that make MacIvor’s work more inspiring than depressing.
Domingues and Busillo both present fully realized portraits of, respectively, the civilized and savage “underclass” of gay men, the former so convincing as being constrained by his own sense of propriety and the latter as recklessly free from it. But, taken with Goldfarb’s, their performances are so densely intertwined that you often feel as though you’re watching a slowly revolving, mirrored periaktos that shows you a constantly changing reflection of the same person. Gualtieri’s direction complements them very well by deploying layers of intimacy in his staging that can flip between romance and incarceration in the moment it takes to pop a cork (something which, predictably, happens often).
That’s appropriate, too, of course, as it’s something at which Williams, perhaps more than any other playwright, excelled. MacIvor admits in his forward to the published edition of this play that it shouldn’t be construed as a historical account of Williams’s life, or even biographically accurate, and his omission of most defining details of the man’s life and career do bear that out. But watching this production, you nevertheless come to understand the man and his plays better, because MacIvor and Gualtieri have unlocked and cultivated their essential qualities in ways that make the general specific and the specific frighteningly familiar. When Tennessee discusses his play with a reporter who questions the reality of his female characters, he may defend himself by saying, “It’s not real, my dear, it’s poetry,” but both Tennessee and His Greatness prove the two can, and should, be one and the same.