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Tennessee Waltz 

In 1969, Tennessee Williams spent two months in a detox program. He was determined to free himself from a dependency on alcohol, amphetamines and barbiturates. He was a casualty of what he called "the catastrophe of success," so, it's not a coincidence that he wrote In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel that same year.

The play, which is on the boards in a gripping production by the Drama! theater company at the Marigny Theater, tells the story of Mark, a successful painter, who is going rapidly down the tubes. Well, perhaps, it's really about the people closest to Mark -- his wife and his old friend, a gallery owner. In fact, Mark spends much of the play off stage, painting -- if crawling around naked while aiming a spray gun at a canvass can be called painting. At any rate, when he does appear, Mark (Michael-Chase Creasy) is so soused he's barely able to stand. Much of his dialogue pours out in a self-centered delirium about the bold new departure he's making in his art.

Meanwhile, his wife (Marinda Woodruff) suffers from a psychopathology that is so characteristic of Williams' characters, one feels there should be a complex called "Tennesexual Omniverance." Like the fleeing movie star in Sweet Bird of Youth who wakes up in a stupor with a gigolo she doesn't entirely remember, Mark's wife is on a reckless hunt for short-term bed mates. The immediate object of her lust is the long-suffering Japanese barman (Ferdinand Olinger), who gives the impression he's seen this sort of Western floozy once or twice before.

In act two, an art dealer (Martin Covert) arrives from New York City to help the wife cope with her aging, stupefied, "tyrannically dependent" prodigy.

Tokyo Hotel takes us to a pretty grim psychic landscape, far from the perfume of magnolias and lilt of French Quarter church bells. But the play is not an intimidating enigma, like some of Williams' later works. It is neither more abstract nor more symbolic than his earlier, more famous plays.

After seeing Tokyo Hotel, I was speaking to a Williams scholar, who was here for the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. I told her I was surprised at how gripping the play was. The scholar replied, offhandedly and yet pointedly, that she found Williams always "played," better than he "read." Tokyo Hotel is proof positive of that maxim.

Director Blake Balu has assembled an excellent cast and elicited authentic, troubling performances from them. What links this story to Williams' greatest dramas is the evenhanded treatment of the characters. At one point or another, you have just about had it with each of them, for their faults and weaknesses are on full view. But ultimately, this cold-eyed approach wins us over -- perhaps because each of us knows our own sorry selves too well. If Tokyo Hotel does not rise to that mysterious pitch of lyricism that one values in so much of Williams' writing, it nonetheless partakes of his gloomy compassion on human destiny.

Meanwhile, as this year's festival fades from memory, it's worth recalling Talking Tennessee, a one-man show that gave us the playwright in his own words. I would be dishonest if I didn't admit that going to see yet another show in which an actor pretends to be Tennessee Williams didn't put me in a less-than-joyous mood. As unfair as it is, one resents the overdose of hagiography.

That said, actor Jeremy Lawrence (who also compiled the script) did a superb job as "the aging crocodile" in white suit and Hawaiian shirt. No "drama" was invented to excuse the occasion. And this, in itself, was unusual. In a Faulkner one-man show I saw a few years ago, the premise was that Faulkner had received the Nobel Prize and didn't want to give his acceptance speech. In a Lillian Hellman one-woman show (staring Janet Shea), Ms. Hellman spoke to us from a hospital waiting room while not far away her lifelong companion, Dashiell Hammett, lay dying. Lawrence's Williams, on the other hand, was simply a composite of interviews and various writings. There was an advantage and a disadvantage to this approach. On the plus side, the lack of gimmick served to focus the event on the words of this quintessential wordsmith. On the downside, the lack of a structure meant, at times, the show seemed to continue simply because it wasn't yet over. Nonetheless, Talking Tennessee was uplifting. We are, in fact, so familiar with the great playwright's persona that listening to Lawrence was almost like visiting with an old friend.

click to enlarge (Clockwise from bottom left) Michael-Chase Creasy, Martin Covert, Ferdinand Olinger and Marinda Woodruff find themselves stuck In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel.
  • (Clockwise from bottom left) Michael-Chase Creasy, Martin Covert, Ferdinand Olinger and Marinda Woodruff find themselves stuck In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel.
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