Sunday, January 16, 2011

"Lesser" Tennessee Williams is Still Better Than Most Things

Many, many years ago, in the first paragraph of the first review I ever received for a play I had written, I garnered the most ridiculously over the top complements any human ever received in the history of theater criticism. Here it is in its entirety:
It is tempting to compare playwright [Caviglia] to many great American dramatic writers. In [title], her stunning one-act play, her psychology is as deep as Sam Shepard's. Her characters' neuroses are as frightening as Edward Albee's. Her poetry may not be as rich as Tennessee Williams's (whose is?), but her plots and characters are less forumlaic than Neil Labute's. She is confidently staking out her territory in our country's strong history of poetic realism.
Seriously, I could never even use it as a pull-quote. I have no idea who the reviewer was, and a big "Thank you!" to you, wherever you may be all these years later, but (and it pains me to say this), you're dead wrong. Or, maybe you're right. Because upon recovering the file (it's old) and rereading it, what the play is, is pastiche. I mean, I was what? Twenty-five? It was the second play I ever completed, and the first one I ever had produced. I was an intern at Circle Rep and on the running crew for a play by Joyce Carol Oates, and I brought in pages every day which were then subsequently read, and critiqued by actor John Seitz. I was immersed in this world that had been built by Lanford Wilson. I was taking heaps of playwrighting classes and I wanted to be another genius American writer, maybe the first one in a silver mini-dress. So, yeah, I was a young writer just finding my own way. And I read all the American greats: Williams, O'Neill, Albee, Shepard (I freaking loathe Arthur Miller). I was obsessed with Paula Vogel who was the playwright that made me come to Circle Rep to begin with. I wanted to be an artist.

But I'm no fool. I was a child. To speak of my writing in the same sentence as Williams's, was ludicrous.

Last Friday night, I saw Green Eyes, the premier of a late period Tennessee Williams one act that is being presented as a part of PS122's Coil Festival. A site specific production, 14 audience members cram into a small room at the Hudson Hotel to watch what happens on Mr. and Mrs. Claude Dunphy's honeymoon. It's strange and intimate and beautifully acted. To be honest, I've read or seen very little later Williams, and have mostly heard it described disparagingly. But I thought Green Eyes was wonderful. Maybe tastes have changed. His dialogue is unmatchable, and the layers and complications and lies and unhappy truths that are brought forth in its 40 minute running time are deep and even possibly true.

Claude is a young army man home on leave. His new wife is a bombshell, teasing and smart, played by Erin Markey in a really remarkable and interesting performance. She looks as if she's stepped directly out of a time machine directly from 1970. She's often nearly naked, her face is right in front of us in the tiny room, she's completely exposed. There always seem to be about six simultaneous and often contradictory things going on behind her eyes, but it all looks effortless. I remember getting invites to the show she had up in SoloNova, and now I really regret not going.

I have no idea what is real and what is not in Green Eyes and it hardly matters. It's pure Southern psychodrama and Williams is a stone cold genius the likes of which come around only once a half century or so. It was such a smart move to stage this in such a tiny space. It's crowded and slightly uncomfortable and it's all right there in front of you. Director Travis Chamberlain made lots of very smart choices and his actors are more than game. My lord, I've seen so much theater that calls itself "transgressive", sexually or otherwise, and I nearly always wind up staring at it stony-eyed, as those words so often wind up meaning "creepy" and "misogynistic" or, like, just "not transgressive." But this is, it's about sex and violence and war. And mostly about where sex and violence overlap, and the desire - of a woman - for this violence. It's disturbing as hell, but it's complicated and believable.

I think I thought of that one act I wrote a long time ago, and that ridiculous review, because I think I was trying to do something a little similar, and lord knows I mostly failed. When I used to read plays we would call works like this "hotel plays", you know you've read and seen far too much when you acknowledge genres that don't really exist. But they're one of the hardest things to do. Because it's just two actors, mostly naked. Talking. Fighting. Screwing. And getting tossed around in some scenes of really tense and believable violence. They can't hide a thing. It's wonderful.

Green Eyes was extended through the 30th. Purchase tickets here (if there are any left), and find information about the show here.

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