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A CurtainUp Review

Small Craft Warnings
By Les Gutman

In all human experience, there are parallels which permit common understanding in the telling and hearing, and it is the frightening responsibility of an artist to make what is directly or allusively close to his own being communicable and understandable, however disturbingly, to the hearts and minds of all whom he addresses. ---Tennessee Williams, 3/26/72, in an essay entitled "Too Personal"

On the jukebox in the seedy coastal bar in which Small Craft Warnings is set, Leona Dawson (Christine McMurdo-Wallis) repeatedly plays Jascha Heifetz's recording of Tchaikovsky's "Serenade Melancholique." There may be nothing in the world that can compete with the plaintive sound of a lonesome violin for conjuring up a feeling of passionate sorrow, but Tennessee Williams, fulfilling his "frightening responsibility," is a close second.

Whatever may be said of his fall from glory, no one will ever suggest that Tennessee Williams became less personal in his later (and lesser) plays, or that he pulled back on the emotional throttle. Small Craft Warnings presents characters so true they could only be borne of personal experience; his searingly poetic words swirl into what may well be the fastigium of his public confessions. (Warnings is, in fact, the outgrowth of a short play Williams wrote in 1967 entitled "Confessional.") It also bubbles with an undercurrent of humor that is, at times, laugh-out-loud funny.

But if Not About Nightingales (which received its tardy premiere this year, see CurtainUp's review linked below) reveals Williams before he reached the peak of his craft, Small Craft Warnings exposes the damage done by years of depression and drinking. Although the voice is still there, the connective tissue that makes his masterpieces what they are is in extremely short supply. Here we see a Williams who rambles and repeats himself, and still doesn't always make his point.

Is it worth a look-see nonetheless? Absolutely. On a purely academic level, it's a necessary key to understanding the totality of one of our great playwrights. Moreover, with age and intoxication Williams becomes in some ways even more interesting, having jettisoned any editing filter he once had. So, as an example, he deals with his homosexuality in a way that would have been unimaginable twenty or even ten years earlier. And with a little forbearance, and a little editing of one's own, his smoldering embers can still ignite.

This faithful production by Worth Street Theater is, remarkably, the first in New York since the original. Its allegiance may be its greatest fault. Filled with disruptive monologues delivered in spotlight as the play's action becomes frozen and muted, Small Craft Warnings is a weird duck. The exceptionally fine acting and well-considered direction in this staging cannot keep it from quacking like one. Some day, Williams's "problem plays" will enter into the public domain where they can be polished into the gems they deserve to be. For now, director Jeff Cohen must play the hand he's been dealt.

An easy-going barkeep, Monk (Michael Cannis) is the cornerstone of this "place of refuge for vulnerable human vessels." He aims to keep his customers in their liquor and any hint of controversy at bay. Tonight, as they do most every night, a crowd of regulars drifts into Monk's Place (evoked with excellence by Larry Brown's set). There's no doubt Williams met some variation of each of these creatures many times over in the course of his own lifetime of bar-hopping. Several he probably became acquainted with while staring in the mirror. Down on their luck, in these precincts, is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Doc (Stewart Steinberg) was kicked out of the medical profession for being a drunk, but still practices on the sly. Bill (Anthony Mangano), who has made a career of being an unemployed stud, is about to be kicked out by Leona, who has been putting him up for the last six months. She is Williams's perhaps unlikely central mouthpiece, a beautician who lives in a trailer park. In her tight pink clamdiggers and nautical hat, she is celebrating the anniversary of her beloved brother's death-day; he was a gay violinist.

Leona is engaged in combat with most everyone, but tonight most especially with Violet (Eliza Pryor Nagel), a young "water plant" of a girl who is playing around with Bill when Leona catches sight of her. Leona is, of course, most particularly at war with herself, and the raw, course depth of her anguish clearly duplicates Williams's own: "You're lucky if you're sick at your stomach because your stomach can vomit, but when you're sick at your heart, that's when it's awful, because your heart can't vomit the memories of your lifetime."

McMurdo-Wallis acquits Leona's desperation with poignant precision. In counterpoint is the last of the regulars, Steve (John DiBenedetto), a middle-aged short order cook seemingly resigned to "getting by on scraps."

Into this mix glides Quentin (David Greenspan), an effete dandy of a washed-up screenwriter, and Bobby (Liam Christopher O'Brien), the wide-eyed young man bicycling from Iowa to Mexico that he picked up on the road. They are not welcome, except by Leona who has become a self-described "faggot moll." In Bobby, she sees "a little of how [her] brother was," and in Quentin, "how he might have become." What we see, manifestly, is Williams as he saw himself when he was a young man about Bobby's age as a student in Iowa, and later, after the parade has passed him by.

Greenspan, a fine actor who nails the characterization, is nonetheless incapable of keeping it from careening into oblivion. Williams pens for Quentin an explication of the most tragic of losses: not of love, or of life, but of the capacity to be surprised. It's a condition in which his reaction to even the most unimaginable is "so what?"

The consequential tragedy is ours to see.

CurtainUp review of Not About Nightingales
Note: Also check out the review of the concurrently running Williamstown Theatre Festival revival of Camino Real

by Tennessee Williams 
Directed by Jeff Cohen 
with Michael Cannis, Stewart Steinberg, Eliza Pryor Nagel, Anthony Mangano, Cristine McMurdo-Wallis, John DiBenedetto, David Greenspan and Liam Christopher O'Brien 
Set Design: Larry Brown 
Lighting Design: Jon Kusner 
Costume Design: Susan L. Soetaert 
A Worth Street Theater Company production 
Tribeca Playhouse, 111 Reade (West Broadway/Church) (212) 604-4195 
opened June 28, 1999 closes July 19, 1999 
Seen June 24, 1999 and reviewed by Les Gutman June 29, 1999

A bit of trivia: When the original production of this play moved to Broadway, ticket sales were slow. To garner a bit of added attention, Williams took over the role of Doc himself. It was not a resounding success:  not only did sales continue to slide, but Williams had trouble remembering his lines and had to be helped by the other actors. There is a lengthy period during which Doc leaves the stage (he goes to deliver a baby at Leona's trailer park). Pity the poor stage manager who was in charge of making sure he could walk back on stage to report that the baby died, the mother was bleeding to death and he had paid the father $50 to forget who he was.

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