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Small Craft Warnings

Theatre Review by Cindy Pierre

Playwright Tennessee Williams was no stranger to dramatizing unhappiness and death, but those themes were only conduits to a deeper problem: loneliness. In 1972, Williams penned a play, Small Craft Warnings (advisories by flags, pennants and colored lights, usually by the Coast Guard, to warn mariners of storms at sea), that delved deep into the subject through eight characters taking refuge, or escape, at a seaside bar. White Horse Theater Company's rendition of it, though fraught with discernible symptoms of loneliness (promiscuity, vagrancy, hustling, belligerence, belligerence, and more belligerence) focuses too much on the extremes and too little on the heart. But at least some of the visuals try to maintain the integrity of the work.

Small Craft Warnings opens on a wonderfully-conceived and executed set by John C. Scheffler that screams marine bar with all the trimmings: mesh rope, a suspended marlin or swordfish-shaped sign amusingly referred to as "sel-fish", and a horde of liquor bottles that are arranged in an almost artful way. Violet (Andrea Maulella), an unkempt, "weeping willow" prostitute, and an aged, boozing ex-doctor named, without suspense, Doc (PatrickTerance McGowan), holds court with Monk (Graham Anderson), the bar owner that wants his place of business to run like Cheers. All seems as one would expect a bar in the middle of its downtime to be: slow, unremarkable, and uneventful until the couple of the hour, Leona (Linda S. Nelson) and Bill (Rod Sweitzer) show up.

Whereas Violet and Doc are content to fade into the background, Bill and Leona are the opposite, each craving attention, and that craving manifesting itself in different, destructive ways. Bill fancies himself a sex machine and looker, trotting about in pants that are too tight and enjoying the occasional hand job under the table that Violet distributes to almost all the men like a business card. Leona, the traveling hairdresser with a penchant for Tchaikovsky's Serenade Melancholique that took him in, bandies about her loneliness and dissatisfaction with her life more than any other character. Unfortunately, as Leona, Nelson does so at decibels that are ear-splitting and after a while, difficult to stomach, unfunny and abrasive. So abrasive that Leona's story eclipses anything else that this production may have to offer, and that was not Williams' intention. Although Williams continues his legacy of strong female characters here with Leona, rather than orbit her in some type of symbiotic relationship, the others get sucked into her vortex.

Small Craft Warnings is fragmented into a series of monologues strung together by interactions . In so doing, Williams not only demonstrates loneliness through the exchanges between the characters, but he also does so structurally. Considered his most well-received play in his later years, it really isn't a play at all, but a carefully-crafted look at eight characters that all want the same thing: love and companionship. Although all the monologues are well-written, and directed with confidence by Cyndy A. Marion, all but Quentin's (Christopher Johnson), the gay screenwriter that's desperate for something surprising, are either over-acted, delivered with too much self-interest or not enough interest.

As the characters are portrayed, the audience will find difficulty in sympathizing, caring or even liking them. For a character-driven piece, this is an insurmountable flaw. Williams' study of loneliness, marked by drifters running from responsibility, hustlers losing their hustle, regular joes feeling irregular, doctors trying to maintain what they lost and hookers still hooking, may not present a solution to the problem, but the audience needs to feel something about their woes. Not even Bobby (Tommy Heleringer), the traveler that Quentin picks up for a night and the only character that doesn't seem to be suffering, provides the ray of hope that he should.

Although it's a shame that Small Craft Warnings is rarely produced, this particular production doesn't make a strong case for future ones. These small crafts, here humans that are susceptible to strong gusts of unhappiness, waves of depression and blocks of icy emptiness, may be experiencing things that are hazardous to their survival, but the performances of the actors aren't compelling. They need to be before the audience, here functioning as the Coast Guard, can reel in the vessels.

Small Craft Warnings
Through October 5
WorkShop Theater, 312 West 36th Street, 4th floor, just west of 8th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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