Culture Project. By Tennessee Williams. Dir. David Schweitzer. With Shirley Knight. 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.
Was there ever a playwright as posthumously prolific as Tennessee Williams? Last year—the centenary of his birth—it seemed like any cocktail napkin grazed by the master’s pen was hauled up, dusted off and shoved into the spotlight to wax lyrical about sensitive souls and cruelty. I saw Tennessee site-specifically in funky hotel rooms, heard his voice in staged screenplays and watched as he was fed (lovingly) into the Wooster Group’s mediated meat grinder. Now comes his final full-length work, a hot mess left unfinished upon his death in 1983. In Masks Outrageous and Austere is late Williams at his most naked and desperate: strung out, bitchy, exhausted and paranoid. The Culture Project’s tech-heavy staging tries to contain and shape the flamboyant energies of the shaggy text, but the mask always slips.
It would not be shocking to learn that Williams snacked on Fassbinder films as he tinkered with this grisly piece of experimental camp, which lurches from corporate espionage to erotic epiphanies and random symbolist elements (cue the enormous black man and the dwarf!). Sixtyish billionairess Clarissa “Babe” Foxworth (Shirley Knight) sucks down martinis and moans about her frustrating sex life while wondering where the hell she is. Her location seems to be a seaside resort where clonelike men in shiny suits and dark sunglasses either protect or serve as prison guards. Babe’s not-so-secretly gay husband (Robert Beitzel) and an ethereally weird next-door neighbor (Alison Fraser) give the audience periodic relief from Babe’s soul-searching. Knight has a history with Williams, but here she’s far too tentative (and even forgot a few lines). If an actor's performance makes the spectator wonder if the role would be better served by a drag queen, you know there’s trouble.
Trying to present this text straight-faced with a professional cast on a respectable budget, director David Schweizer misses the point. This is a broken, corrupted text, and should be treated as such, not tarted up with LED screens and body mikes. For a corpse this garish, it’s best to scrape off the makeup and sequins, not add more.—David Cote
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