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In Masks Outrageous and Austere

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Alison Fraser and Shirley Knight
Photo by Carol Rosegg

From the moment you enter the upstairs theater at the Culture Project, where the world premiere production of Tennessee Williams's final play In Masks Outrageous and Austere just opened, you're surrounded by yourself. All four walls have been swathed in glass so shiny, it's as if you're being swarmed by teeming thousands who appear close enough to touch, but are in fact forever beyond your reach. But because these surfaces are not actual mirrors, you can also see behind them, to witness lights that twinkle and change color, perhaps a few sticks of furniture, or men in dark suits and sunglasses scanning your every move. By the time live video of the audience—including, just maybe, you—is projected onto the upstage wall, you may find yourself questioning the whats and whys that brought you to the theater in the first place.

Such feelings are at the core of both Williams's play and David Schweizer's uncompromising mounting of it, but here, as in life, they don't come easy. Although ostensibly concerning a rich Southern woman named Clarissa Foxworth (aka "Babe"), who's been abducted to a mysterious seaside retreat, apparently by the company responsible for her voluminous fortune, it ultimately registers as most of Williams's plays do: as a study of the playwright's own passionate beliefs about the world, the relationships that fuel it, and the sex and sexuality that so often fuel them. And because those viewpoints do not easily blend, vertigo sets in almost as soon as the first scene commences.

In fairness, it's not immediately obvious how much responsibility Williams bears for this. He wrote several drafts from 1978 to 1983, the year he died (though some sources point to a prototype existing as early as 1970), and after the unpublished manuscripts passed to associate Gavin Lambert and receiving treatments from artists as diverse as Gore Vidal and Peter Bogdanovich, it was further edited and into this version with the help of what Schweizer describes as "sophisticated forensic computer techniques." Unless you're intimately familiar with every stage of the play's development (which, I must admit, I am not), Schweizer has made it impossible to discern what Williams wrote, when, and under what circumstances, which is a net positive. But you also cannot know on whom the myriad problems with the "finished" product should be blamed.

Robert Beitzel, Shirley Knight, and Sam Underwood
Photo by Carol Rosegg

James Noone's post-modern set design, which extrapolates from Williams's own dicta about the primary sundeck location to build everything else, Alexander V. Nichols's dim-sun lighting, Dan Moses Schreier's electro-echo-heavy music and sound, and Darrel Maloney's video and projections heighten the central notion that we can never fully escape from the truth of ourselves. That's exactly what Babe (Shirley Knight) is attempting now that she's arrived in Gideon's Point, which is part oceanfront resort and part prison. While battling paranoia and cataracts, she must deal with something potentially more debilitating: the attractions of her much-younger husband, Billy (Robert Beitzel), to his much-younger male secretary, Jerry (Sam Underwood). As Babe is losing her identity, her status, and her sight, she's also losing her heart.

Certainly all these elements, when fused with still others—the presence of Babe's maid Peg (Pamela Shaw) is having difficulty holding on to her own man, the hunky Joey (Christopher Halladay); the kooky neighbor, Mrs. Gorse-Bracken (Alison Fraser), visits over and over with her sexually abused, constantly masturbating son (Connor Buckley) in tow, from the next-door estate no one can see; and a towering black man (Jermaine Miles), who may or may not be Mrs. Gorse-Bracken's husband, and his dwarf interpreter (Jonathan Kim) also appear—point to an unusually frantic and frenzied creation, even by the unmatched standards of Williams's own late oeuvre. And if the goal is to present a picture of a fracturing mind as experienced from the inside out, one whose owner must gradually learn that "illusions retreat when confronted by truth," as a late snatch of dialogue has it, I can only say: objective achieved.

But the absence of narrative and emotional focus hurts the play, with Schweizer's acid-infused TV studio rendition doing nothing to guide your eye or feelings. Powerful anchors gave Williams the freedom in his defining works (particularly the Big Three of The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) to explore a variety of topics while keeping sight of his destination. But regardless of whether Williams intended In Masks Outrageous and Austere as an aching plea for sexual tolerance, a scathing indictment of corporatism's tendency to own and control individuals (Babe is, after all, "the 1 percent"), a punishing character study, another lament for a disappearing (disappeared?) culture as represented by an aging Southern belle in fast-motion fade, or something else altogether, it tries so hard to be so many things that it ends up not being much of anything at all.

You might catch, however, isolated glimpses of Williams's earlier brilliance. Though there's little classic material here, no attempt has been made to hide at least some sympathy for Babe and her ongoing struggle. Her pain is real and recognizable, and her increasingly impassioned speeches about orienting herself in an off-kilter existence do land with some grip. This is in no small part due to Knight's fervent commitment to her character: She shows you how Babe's spine slowly turns to jelly, how she transitions from certitude to doubt to loss and then acceptance, her concluding lines (and visions) evincing a clarity of soul that strife cannot extinguish entirely. When Babe says, her voice trying to hide its natural shake, "I frequently had the feeling these last few years that I would surely wake up and discover that it would all dissolve and I'd know that I dreamt it," you understand everything you need to about the woman and the playwright who fashioned her.

With the exception of the indelible Fraser, whose scattered, shattered rendition of the intrusive neighbor reads as a miniature version of Babe, and thus compellingly links the two, the other performances are at best functional. For Ward Horton, Scot Charles Anderson, and Kaolin Bass, who find the proper sinister notes in the nearly wordless Secret Service–meets–Matrix Gideon agents, this is no big deal; the impact is more deeply felt with Beitzel and Underwood, whose characters should provide a dangerously destabilizing influence, but whose lightweight takes on them preclude that occurring.

Only Babe, then, is substantial, which is an issue only insofar as the character being one cog in a much larger and more confusing machine. If this is supposed to be Babe's story, it falls short, yet it doesn't quite convince as anything else, either. The source of these contradictions has been lost, perhaps to time, and one suspects from this intriguing but messy production that neither it nor the answers to its questions will ever be unearthed. Williams undoubtedly asked some provocative things, but too many—and in a voice that's hard to clearly make out among the din of reflections, both public private, that is In Masks Outrageous and Austere.

In Masks Outrageous and Austere
Through May 26
Culture Project @ 45 Bleeker, 45 Bleecker Street at Lafayette
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