Upstairs theaters, pushed into dusty obscurity by greasy-spoon
restaurants and storefront churches, can feel like the farthest off
Broadway of Off-Off-Broadway theaters. Cozy or claustrophobic,
these little houses showcase the mixed talents of the picturesque
but struggling theater people. One such venue is the American
Globe Theatre, currently showing Four By Tennessee, an
evening of four Tennessee Williams one-act plays. This gently
shabby little theater is ideally suited to the dark desires and sordid
suffering of Tennessee Williams’ characters, offering a little taste
of the mediocre and the marvelous to its audience.
The first and most successful of the plays is “27 Wagons Full of
Cotton,” a painful exploration of sadistic and masochistic
impulses in the Depression-era Mississippi Delta. The story
centers around Flora Meighan (Megan Garcia), a plump, childlike
housewife and one of Williams’ signature fragile females. She is
tormented in “fun” and in terrible earnest by her husband, Jake
(Justin Ray Thompson), and by the superintendent of a
neighboring plantation, Silva Vicarro (Richard Fay). Flora’s
weakness makes her susceptible from the start; by the end of the
play she has come completely undone.
Garcia plays Flora with a convincing and coherent physicality;
details such as her uncrossed legs and maternally clutched kid
purse perfectly elucidate Flora’s vulnerability. Her accent is less
convincing and coherent. Thompson’s Jake speaks in a growling
drawl well suited to the character’s weirdly charismatic
coarseness, a trait reminiscent of A Streetcar Named
Desire’s Stanley Kowalski. Fay as Vicarro has a suitable oily,
feline quality but is perhaps a bit too theatrically villainous, and the
bizarre getup (including a black leather hat, which has the
unfortunate effect of making him look like an evil Crocodile
Dundee) that costume designer Melissa C. Richards has him
wearing detracts from any attempt at subtlety.
The second half of the program consists of three shorter plays:
“Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen…,” “The Dark Room,”
and “The Case of the Crushed Petunias.” The first of these is
essentially a pair of stream-of-consciousness monologues for a
scantily clad couple in a seedy New York apartment. Charles
Tucker’s Man recounts his half-recollected night of carousal quite
believably, but Liz Belonzi delivers her fantastic monologue with a
too-breathless fervor. Despite the flaws in Belonzi’s performance
and some awkwardly aggressive sexual choreography, the theme
of futile hope amid squalid surroundings comes across.
“The Dark Room,” an interview between a social worker (Erin
Schmahl) and an Italian-American immigrant mother (Julia
McLaughlin), offers both the weakest and the strongest
performances of the evening. Schmahl speaks in round tones as
though she thinks she’s in a Shakespeare play; the social worker
should certainly be self-righteous, but speaking in a
pseudo-British accent is not the only way to convey
self-righteousness. McLaughlin, however, is fantastic as the
curmudgeonly Mrs. Pocciatti. Her tight-lipped old woman is the
most convincing character in the entire performance, and her
reluctant discussion of her unseen daughter in the dark room
makes the daughter a truly pathetic phantom presence.
“The Case of the Crushed Petunias” seems like a strange choice
to end a program of otherwise typically tragic Tennessee Williams.
Perhaps artistic director John Basil wanted to end the
performance on a high note, but Williams’ “Lyrical Fantasy”
doesn’t quite ring true. The play is sweetly absurd, with plenty of
broad physical comedy wittily executed by Stacie Renna as the
innocent and narrow-minded Dorothy Simple and Matt Walton as
the enthusiastic Young Man. After watching an evening of brooding
plays revolving around frail or damaged women, however, one
can’t help but feel that Dorothy Simple’s naiveté makes her as
vulnerable as all the others. This lends the play an unintended
poignancy, as though it has soaked up some bittersweetness
from the other plays.
Four by Tennessee opened on Nov. 12 at the American Globe
Theatre, 145 West 46th Street, and runs through Nov. 28.
Performances are Monday through Wednesday at 8 pm. Tickets
are $15. Call 869-9809.