Desire: An Evening of Plays Based on Six Stories by Tennessee Williams

Theater
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Desire: An Evening of Plays Based on Six Stories by Tennessee Williams

Theater review by David Cote

Tennessee Williams published several collections of short stories between 1954 and ’81, but most of us absorb his lyrical prose from the mouths of actors, not when it's lying primly on a page. Now the stalwart Acting Company has commissioned adaptations of six of his tales by accomplished playwrights. I’ve only read half of the stories, but you can assume each playlet is both equal homage to a master and playful riff on a source. As you would expect from any project drawn from Williams’s hothouse oeuvre, the pieces are rife with agonized sexual longing, trembling Southern belles and spasms of violence. And while any night of vignettes is inevitably mixed, this program is satisfying in small, intense doses.

The more effective episodes address Williams’s dated attitudes toward people of color and women. Marcus Gardley’s Desire Quenched by Touch humanizes and individualizes the title figure in the 1948 story “Desire and the Black Masseur,” giving the nameless “Negro” a backstory. It’s the tale of a painfully repressed white resident of New Orleans (John Skelley) who pays for a black masseur (Yaegel T. Welch) to beat him black and blue. The source is a grotesque sexual fable, and while Gardley remains faithful to the grisly finale, he also sharply sketches overlapping zones of Southern racism and homophobia. In adapting the earliest piece, “The Field of Blue Children” (1939), Rebecca Gilman updates the setting, adding sorority-girl humor and sexual frankness to a campus romance with class tensions.

John Guare’s You Lied to Me About Centralia is an earnest and touching answer to the question, “What happened to Jim the Gentleman Caller after The Glass Menagerie?” David Grimm’s witty, heartbroken Oriflamme pairs a dreamy Southern gal (Liv Rooth) with a stranger on a park bench (Derek Smith) who starts as a Mitch and ends as a Stanley. The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin, from Beth Henley, is a Southern memory play with roots in Carson McCullers, valuable mainly as a vehicle for the yearning appeal of young Juliet Brett.

Lastly, Tent Worms is based on a 1980 story about a wife and her husband trying to clear the titular pests from their Cape Cod summer home. The couple has been moved to present day and bittersweetly sketched by Elizabeth Egloff. A late revelation about the husband’s diseased state reveals the rather heavy metaphorical function the worms had been serving. As you can see, these stories are not subtle in their literary devices or symbolic gestures, and the plays are most interesting when the authors mitigate such flamboyant, combustible material with their own voice and vision.

Michael Wilson directs an appealing, uniformly good ensemble and the movements flow swiftly, offering variety—if not dramatic thrills—at every turn. Most American playwrights working today owe some debt to Williams; it’s a pleasure, even inspiring, to see six give back.—David Cote

59E59 (Off Broadway). Based on stories by Tennessee Williams. By Elizabeth Egloff, Marcus Gardley, Rebecca Gilman, David Grimm, John Guare and Beth Henley. Directed by Michael Wilson. With ensemble casts. 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote

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Event website: http://59e59.org
Event phone: 212-753-5959
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