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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Gentleman Caller
New Conservatory Theatre Center
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of The Jungle

Brennan Pickman-Thoon and Adam Niemann
Photo by Lois Tema
Imagination is "that most endangered of American qualities." At least according to Tennessee Williams. At least according to the Tennessee Williams imagined by playwright Philip Dawkins (and played with a delicious sense of the louche by Brennan Pickman-Thoon) in The Gentleman Caller, currently playing at San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center. Dawkins has put his imagination to work, speculating on what might have taken place when Williams was interviewed by William Inge, who was at the time of the play (1944) arts critic for the St. Louis Star-Times, and later—with encouragement from Williams—went on to write plays himself, including Come Back, Little Sheba, Bus Stop and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Picnic.

This two-hander, expertly directed by Arturo Catricala and featuring Adam Niemann as William Inge, explores the artistic and sexual longings of these two literary lions when both were in the very early stages of their careers. Aside from their literary ambitions, the two men had much in common. Both were gay, though Inge was deeply closeted and remained so all his life, while Williams was as out as one could be in 1944, going through lovers like they were Kleenex. Both were alcoholics, though—true to their sexual natures—Inge fought his urges, going in and out of rehab, while Williams seemed to celebrate his love of a cocktail or twelve. And both were mostly (or entirely) raised in the Midwest.

The beautifully accomplished set by designer Kevin Landesman, featuring a sofa, an upholstered chaise longue (that simply cries out to be a fainting couch), a steamer trunk doubling as a bar (and seeing significant use), and a backdrop of black pages featuring text from the two men's plays in white type, provides a lovely setting for a complex predator-prey relationship in which those roles are occasionally as fluid as the free-flowing gin.

At the top of the play, it's clear that Williams is in charge. Pickman-Thoon establishes a bitchy swagger that places him firmly in the alpha position. He owns the play—setting the scene in asides to the audience that reveal his dominance and insecurities in equal measure. He's far more accomplished than Inge—"I've done a few things," he says, "some of which I'll even admit to."—with his first play, The Glass Menagerie about to be staged in Chicago. But he's still a young artist hungry for the bit of publicity Inge's interview might provide. Yet Inge is clearly in awe of Tennessee—both as the local boy who made good, and as a man unashamed neither of his sexuality nor his desire for celebrity and public attention. Inge wants what Williams has—or at least is on his way to getting—but is filled with self-loathing and a crippling lack of confidence.

Pickman-Thoon is wonderful, slurping up the richness of the role Dawkins has created. Tennessee Williams gets almost all the laughs in the play, and Pickman-Thoon delivers the comedy with perfect timing, and an air of detachment that says "I don't care what you think about me, as long as you love me" that feels absolutely in tune with the character of the actual Tennessee Williams. This is a powerful personality, and Pickman-Thoon manages to express that power with a gentility and tenderness that belies its impact. His performance is a like a knife so sharp you don't know you've been cut until you see the blood pooling at your feet. When he tells Inge (after a clumsy attempt at intimacy) that "the point of hiding together is not having to hide when we're together," you could feel the audience falling in love with Williams.

As Inge, Adam Niemann does his best to keep up, but is hampered by two things, one of which is out of his control. As written by Dawkins, Inge is so unsure of himself (except in a beautiful scene in which he describes his dream of a gorgeous man he imagines coming to his town, where his beauty lays bare the imperfections of everyone else—foreshadowing the handsome drifter who throws the town in Inge's Picnic into chaos) that it's hard for him to take control of a scene. But Niemann undercuts what power his character does have by overplaying both his angst and sensitivity. A bit more delicacy with the role would bring him into balance with both his scene partner and the tone set by director Catricala.

Dawkins' play is filled with marvelous, catty lines that had the audience roaring. "I had every intent of being punctual. But then wasn't," Williams says as a sorry-not sorry to Inge. Later, after Inge's dog attacks Williams, an aside to the audience explains how she tore at his calf "using only her teeth and ambition—like Bette Davis." The play is at its best when it's being bitchy. And though there are some lovely moments, especially about the risk involved with being an artist (Inge attributes his reticence at writing to "the pressure of someone seeing my soul, and finding it wanting."), The Gentleman Caller overstays its welcome, especially when it dives into the horrors its characters have experienced.

The Gentleman Caller is well worth seeing, however, in part because it reveals something ultimately beautiful about the life of the artist, poignantly expressed by Brennan Pickman-Thoon as Tennessee Williams: "To live. To write. To tell the truth by putting on a show."

The Gentleman Caller, through May 5, 2019, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. There are additional performances April 27 and May 4 at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $25-$55, and can be purchased at or by calling 415-861-8972.