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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
There are undoubtedly some of us who can recall the huge and very provocative billboard that stretched almost half a block atop the Broadway's Victoria Theatre's marquee in 1956. It caught our eyes even as it might have stopped traffic displaying the young, recently discovered actress Carol Baker in a nightgown lying in a crib sucking her thumb.
The film that also included such greats as Karl Malden, Eli Wallach and Mildred Dunnock was intended as a satirical comedy and was acclaimed by many critics at the time. But it was also given a "C" rating ("Condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency") which cooked its goose at the box-office.
Though tagged as written by Tennessee Williams the screenplay was primarily written by the film's director Elia Kazan. Some of that suggestiveness remains in this collaboration by McCarter Theatre's Artistic Director Emily Mann and French writer Pierre Laville. Their version opens with the spotlight on Baby Doll curled up in her crib on the second floor of the dilapidated plantation house on the Mississippi Delta. The time is 1952 and it's as hot inside as it is outside.
Kudos to set and lighting designer Edward Pierce who provides an impressive look into the sparsely furnished interior that includes a crumbling attic. A rather barren porch and front yard with one lonely rose bush and an old water pump further establishes that this neglected home as well as its pathetic inhabitants have seen better days.
he story was based on characters of limited intelligence and unlimited urges created in two pre-1945 one-act plays The Unsatisfactory Supper and 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, before Williams hit pay-dirt with The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire.
This new adaptation of a darkly humorous trifle has some good things going for it and again some not such good things that keep it in the still promising stages of development.
Laville, who first translated Baby Doll into French in 2007 and also translated Mann's play Still Life for the Avignon Festival, has here reestablished a long-time connection with Mann. They have something going here, but it isn't comedy. While artistic license allows them to toy with Williams' original vision of life among these egregiously asinine Southern folk, as well as the one reflected by Kazan on the screen, I suspect that those who love the film will miss seeing the outrageously droll sexual encounters. There is a darker underbelly to plot and to the plotters now that severs the outlandishness and silliness that particularly served the film so well.
Baby Doll, as portrayed winningly by the very pretty blonde and curvy Susannah Hoffman, is indeed, prepared to ignite the smoldering flames in the two men who lust after her. Yet the irresistibly seductive, air-headed nineteen-year-old virgin bride is determined to stay that way until she is twenty. That is the time when she will allow Archie Lee Meighan (a terrific performance by Robert Joy) her brutal and equally brainless husband and owner of an antiquated cotton gin, to consummate their marriage after two years.
Baby Doll is also being playfully but also blatantly stalked by the very sly Silva Vacarro (Dylan McDermott), the handsome thirty-something Sicilian who owns a rival neighboring cotton gin. His unsettling arrival and presence at the house is tantamount to a pending eruption of Mount Vesuvius. He has reason to suspect that Archie has burned down his cotton gin during the night.
McDermott, who was memorable as Tom in the Mann-directed The Glass Menagerie, seems a bit uncomfortable in the role. A big obstacle to his stealthily executed foreplay with Baby Doll as well as the furtive mind games he plays with Archie is that the heavy Southern drawl and demeanor he has affected are closer in spirit to old Southern gentry than that of an earthy, passionate Sicilian immigrant.
It's a pity that the film's infamously sexy "swing scene" in which Silva makes his well-calculated moves on Baby Doll comes off as anything but erotic. The best scene in the play involves the frantic Baby Doll and the increasingly desperate Silva in a high-speed game of hide and seek that takes them on a wild romp through the entire house and ending up in the hazardous attic. It's beautifully directed and should get even better with more performances.
The visceral fury that propels Archie are the play's dramatic cornerstone. There is also much to admire in veteran actor Patricia Conolly's touching performance as the amusingly dotty, hymn-singing Aunt Rose Comfort. Except for Archie's violent outbursts, the general mood under Mann's direction is, perhaps as it needs to be, languid. But just let a real live chicken wander in from the wings and you've got yourself a real scene-stealer. Perhaps we needed a few more of those intrusions in this mildly titillating romp in Williamsville.
Editor's note: For our London critic's review of Lucy Bailey's Baby Doll adaptation go here. And for more about Tennessee Williams, see our Williams Backgrounder