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Small Craft Warnings
This rarely-produced minor work made a small theatrical splash at its premiere back on April 2, 1972 at the off-Broadway Truck and Warehouse Theatre. It resurfaced in 1999 with a production that was reprised a year later and reviewed both times by Curtainup, first by Les Gutman's review Les Gutman and the secon time by Elyse Sommer. A 2003 production in LA was reviewed by Laura Hitchcock. ). Unfortunately, the current staging isn't likely to increase the play's lackluster standing in Williams' oeuvre.
Acclaimed actor-director Austin Pendleton, who helms the production, has also taken on the role as the old homosexual screenwriter named Quentin. But his fine acting is hardly matched by his directing. Instead of giving us a credible rendering of a beachfront California tavern in the 70s, he skimps on the set design and gives the entire production a casual feel that undermines what's already a slightly structured drama.
Even in a better producvion, the episodes and characters of this play often come across as either too calculated or overly sentimental. Indeed the characters seem to be mere tokens of those found in the playwright's earlier (and better) dramas.
The assorted derelicts we meet include Violet (Tammy Lang), a ghost of a young woman who subsists on any male affection tossed in her direction. Described as a sort of water-flower in the play, she aimlessly floats through all the scenes like a woebegone Ophelia. A key role is that of Leona Dawson (Gina Stahlnecker), a tough-hearted beautician traveling from one town to another in a trailer, who has a fling with the stud Bill McCorkle (Joe Ulam). Also on stage we have the alcoholic Doc (John Greenleaf) who lost his medical license years ago; the almost cretinous Steve (Eddy Lee Priest); and Bobby (Adam Dodway), a young man who is exploring his sexual identity with screenwriter Quentin (Austin Pendleton). Rounding out the group is the barkeep, Monk (Ross Kramberg), a passive sort but endearingly compassionate toward the damaged souls who wander into his bar seeking temporary refuge.
Except for Gina Stahlnecker's beautician, the ensemble's acting is mediocre, making Pendleton's performance the real reason to see this production. He plays the old homosexual with such total identification that one of the rarest things in theater takes place: the audience is allowed to form its own opinion of this bohemian character. Pendleton doesn't editorialize his character but instead takes what Williams has offered in the text, and unapologetically presents it for the audience's consideration. He trusts that the essential character will live, and live he does. The one other notable performance is given by Gina Stahlnecker as the beautician.
In spite running just 90 minutes without an intermission, the play tends to feel over-extended with stretches of overly sentimental dialogue and times when the action stalls out altogether. Time and again, we recognize that Williams has been there and-donethat before, but better. .
The absence of a satisfying set doesn't help. The demon of rising costs might be behind the very Spartan staging of this Small Craft Warnings but this spareness was particularly evident in a play that included a foreword in which William painstakingly described his "ideal" set (for instance, a diagonal bar crossing the stage, a blue neon sign saying "Monk's Place" and a large varnished swordfish suspended over the bar with goggle-like eyes fixed in a state of perpetual amazement). One can't help wishing that Pendleton might have at least made some attempt to evoke the salty ambience of a beachfront California bar. Expect for the marine sounds that waft through the air before and during the show, one can hardly fathom that the characters are at a bar in what amounts to what one would expect in a staged reading but not a fully-realized production.
In spite of the glaring lack of authentic atmosphere, Mr. Pendleton clearly has a firm grasp of the playwright's strenths and there are several illuminating moments even in this production that reveal the author's life-long identification with losers, his fascination and affinity with sinners, and his incisive reflections on the human condition. Thus, though I can hardly praise this threadbare production for its inventive staging or ensemble acting, even this stark presentation of the old play can still reward serious theatergoers and, of course, the many Tennessee Williams devotees.