If Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré, which opened in solid, but unexciting, revival last night at the Pearl Theatre, were a movie, it might be marketed at "Glass Menagerie 2: The Writer Moves On." Or, to retain the cinema metaphor for a moment, it might also be considered a sort of coming attractions piece because, although the play only debuted in the late 1970s, Williams began working on it in the 1930s, and in "Vieux," theatergoers will encounter situations and characters that have become part of our cultural currency from works far more famous than this.
"Vieux," as one might guess is set in New Orleans, in a seedy boarding house run by the elderly and increasingly delusional Mrs. Wire (a formidable Carol Schultz). It's to this house on Toulouse Street (its multiple floors and rooms rendered abstractly on one level by scenic designer Harry Feiner) that a sensitive writer, known only as "The Writer" (played winningly by Sean McNall), has retreated from St. Louis (where "Menagerie" is set) in hopes of finding inspiration. And he's certainly chosen right. The place is filled with colorful, pitiable creatures, each with a story.
Take Nightingale (imbued with predatory sweetness and helplessness by George Morfogen) the elderly painter who lives just beyond the plywood partition of the writer's cubicle. He's a gay man battling tuberculosis, who's managed to convince himself that his job drawing quick sketches of tourists is only temporary and that bedbugs are the reason that he finds blood on his sheets every morning.
Other elderly residents include Mary Maude (a luminous Beth Dixon) and Miss Carrie (a heartbreakingPamela Payton-Wright) who spend their days in their darkened room and their nights rooting through garbage cans for food, bringing back what they do discover in "doggie bags" from the restaurant they've just visited. Their pride only goes so far. When they smell Wire cooking up a gumbo, they rush to the kitchen with a saucepan, hoping for a handout. They accept the stew even after Wire's spit into the concoction.
Although it may sound as if the Writer is surrounded by the eldery, he's not. Also living in the house is Jane (Rachel Botchan), a Yankee who's come to New Orleans to find herself, and along the way taken up with Tye (Joseph Collins), an abusive and alcoholic strip show barker, who now shares her room. Well-heeled by birth, Jane's finding it increasingly difficult to retain her proper ways, reveling instead in the sensuality that surrounds her.
If Jane and Tye's relationship often brings to mind the love-hate duality shared by Blanche and Stanley in "Streetcar," Nightingale seems to be a precursor to a character found in Williams' lesser-known Kingdom of Earth. Even some of the stories that the characters relate seem to be prescient echoes of later Williams plays. In one of Tye's stories, for instance, one hears of a grisly death that brings to mind the description of Sebastian's demise in Suddenly Last Summer.
Vieux Carré is heady and amorphous, a sprawling memory play and sketchbook of sorts. The play demands topnotch acting and director Austin Pendleton has elicited a host of performances that are, for the most part, impeccably rendered. Concurrently, the piece requires a staging that shapes its episodic structure into a cohesive whole, and here, Pendleton's work, though solid, falls short; individual moments and scenes work beautifully, but this "Vieux" never feels as if it's anything more than a series of Williams' vaguely interrelated lyrical memories of his first visit to New Orleans. Williams fans will surely savor the chance to see this rarely staged work in performance, but it remains a sadly unsatisfying late work from this master of American drama.
---- Andy Propst
Vieux Carré plays at the Theatre 80 (1st Avenue & St. Mark's Place). Performances are Tuesday at 7pm; Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm; and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $45-$55 and can be purchased by calling 212-598-9802. Further information is available online at www.pearltheatre.org.