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Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Mickey Theis and Juliet Brett
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Some artists are so original, so unique, that anyone attempting to use their work as a model for their own runs the risk of producing a cheap imitation or of falling into unintended parody. In the world of theater, a noteworthy example of such an iconic figure is Tennessee Williams, whose ability to create stunning images through language has seldom been matched.

So it was a bold move on the part of director Michael Wilson and The Acting Company to put together an evening of plays based on a half dozen of Williams's short stories. The plays, all of them newly written, are being presented at 59E59 under the collective title of Desire.

The adaptations were done by an impressive group of playwrights: John Guare, Beth Henley, Marcus Gardley, Rebecca Gilman, David Grimm, and Elizabeth Egloff. Each brings a distinctive voice to the collection, with the results ranging from seamless translation from short story to play, to intriguing joining of Williams with the adaptor, to some of that unfortunate veering into caricature.

Of the six, it is Beth Henley who has most closely harmonized with Williams with her beautifully crafted adaptation of "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin." It is a story of siblings, 12-year-old Tom (Mickey Theis), and his 14-year-old sister Roe (Juliet Brett). The two are thick as thieves until Roe crosses the line into adolescence and leaves Tom behind. The title refers to Roe's awkwardness around an older boy, Richard (Brian Cross), whom she is supposed to accompany on the piano while he plays the violin at a recital. Ms. Henley delicately weaves her own voice with Williams's themes of romantic dreaminess, burgeoning sexuality, and mental instability. The overall result is a perfect little gem of a play.

Taking another approach altogether, Elizabeth Egloff has reworked the story "Tent Worms," modernized it, and made it her own. It is about a married couple, Clara (Liv Rooth) and Billy (Derek Smith), who are spending the summer at a beach house, where Billy is ostensibly writing a novel. But he cannot concentrate, and instead he is focusing his attention on the tent worms (caterpillars) that are infesting the trees. The play starts out by looking at the couple's relationship, using a contemporary flippant tone. But gradually it moves into recognizable Williams territory as we learn about Billy's health problems and Clare's frustration at feeling trapped. While both halves of the play work well, the shift in tone is a bit abrupt as it moves from contemporary dialogue into Williams-like lyricism.

With his contribution, John Guare has adapted "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," an early version of what would later become The Glass Menagerie. Guare focuses on the story of Jim (Mickey Theis), the "gentleman caller." In his version of the story, Jim recounts his dinner with Tom Wingfield's family to his fiancée (Megan Bartle). (Williams's original story is also about Jim, but it is told from Tom's point of view.) Fans of The Glass Menagerie will appreciate that Jim retains his kindness when he speaks of the Wingfields and of "Shakespeare's sister," but the play comes off more gimmicky than insightful.

A very odd entry into the mix is Marcus Gardley's adaptation of "Desire and the Black Masseur," itself an odd work that incorporates elements of S&M culture, serves as a metaphor for race relations, and adds a touch of Hannibal Lecter as a lagniappe. It relates the story of a black masseur (Yaegel T. Welch) who works at a gay bathhouse and has a white client (John Skelley) who longs to be pounded into a pulp. The writing here is engaging and strong, though the ending does take us over the top into truly creepy territory.

In his adaptation of "Oriflamme" (the title refers to a battle flag), David Grimm writes about one of Williams's dreamy and vulnerable women who manage to put themselves in harm's way while they pine for their innocent youth. Anna (Liv Rooth), a department store worker, is feeling rebellious. She has dressed in a scarlet evening gown and gone by herself into a lonely park. There she meets up with a brazen and slightly drunk man (Derek Smith) who eyes her lasciviously while she talks moodily of her long lost love. Though the acting is good, this is a case where the fine line between a disturbing reality and parody comes awfully close to being breached.

Wrapping up the evening, Rebecca Gilman offers her adaptation of "The Field Of Blue Children," a story that also relates an act of rebellion on the part of its female protagonist. Ms. Gilman has placed her character, Layley (Megan Bartle) into a world of ditzy sorority sisters (à la Legally Blonde). She is engaged to be married, but she briefly breaks away from her insular world to take up with a poetry student (John Skelley) before returning to her expected life. One wonders if, in later years, she will be like Anna and be filled with regret about following the rules instead of her heart.

Michael Wilson, the director, is no stranger to taking on Tennessee Williams's works. He directed 16 of Williams's plays at Hartford Stage, and has tackled some of the master's rarely-produced pieces like the defiantly prosaic head-scratchers The Red Devil Battery Sign and The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. With these adapted short stories, he has opened an entirely new avenue to explore, and given that Williams published dozens of stories in addition to his plays, there is clearly more to be mined. The performances by a very solid cast, along with excellent scenic and projection desgn by Jeff Cowie and costumes by David C. Woolard, make Desire an important addition to the list of theater works for Williams aficionados to discover.

Through October 10
2 hours 25 minutes with one intermission
59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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