Tennessee Williams, who was close to forty when The Rose Tattoo opened on Broadway in February 1951, had already enjoyed major success with three plays, and had won a Pulitzer, the first of two, for A Streetcar Named Desire. The Rose Tattoo earned him his first Tony. It rather swept them up, as the scenic designer, Boris Aronson, and the two lead actors, Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach, also won Tonys. This was a big moment for all of them—certainly a milestone in Williams’ career. Yet, when the director of the current production, Trip Cullman, says, in an interview published in the program, that The Rose Tattoo “doesn’t occupy the same place in the canon as The Glass Menagerie, or A Streetcar Named Desire, or even Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” we can accept it readily enough. Cullman envisioned his task as revealing its greatness. Indeed, the play hasn’t been revived very often. All the more credit to Mr. Cullman and to Mandy Greenfield, the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Artistic Director, for taking on the challenge and for realizing its greatness with such brilliance—an extremely difficult task, I’d say, first because of Williams’ mercurial, almost indecisive shifting from pathos to comedy and back again, and secondly because of the problems involved in depicting Italian-American characters and life not only on stage, but in fiction and in film.
British playwright Mike Bartlett’s fast-paced short play, An Intervention, closes with a black slapstick routine worthy of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. In the final scene, Character A, as she/he is called, brings out a ladder. Since we know A to be a troubled alcoholic, the conclusion we are meant to draw is obvious. A mounts the ladder experimentally, then retreats. Character B arrives. A scene ensues. A, fortified by tequila chugged straight from the bottle, mounts the ladder again. Lights flash in our faces, and a noose appears from nowhere. A puts it round her/his neck. B, remorseful, tries to stop his friend. The ladder topples and B is left holding A by the legs—a balancing act standing between A and death. The play closes as B sets his far-fetched and not-very-promising solution, A realizes that there will be no solution to his drinking problem, and the two reaffirm their mutual love, which has been so severely bruised over the past 45 minutes.
Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 131 makes Horatios of us all. We stand by, we listen to prophetic greatness, we try to respond, but it eludes us. Hamlet tells us there are more things he could say if he had more time. Doesn’t this sound like the Quartet? In the midst of sublimity, Beethoven finds humor. And most Hamlet-like of all, the serious and the risible are jam-packed together, with no recovery time for the listener. The time is short. The Mirò Quartet made this doubly so. The performance had an irresistible forward motion. Even the great set of variations were fleet of foot somehow. Every time I hear this piece I am bewildered. They made it clearer. Partly it was a relentless energy, but mostly it was their ability to make even what silence there is in the piece forward leaning.
Like other arts institutions in the Berkshires the Williamstown Theatre Festival has had its share of ups and downs with what has been looking increasingly like a revolving door for artistic directors. The late Roger Rees, who created some especially intriguing programming, only lasted three years, Nicholas Martin, beset by illness, only two, and Jenny Gersten three. Most recently the programming seemed to be losing its luster. I for one began to find it harder and harder to find productions I was interested in seeing, much less writing about. The arrival this season of yet another new Artistic Director, Mandy Greenfield, came as a signal to start coming back. Ms. Greenfield arrives in Williamstown with a distinguished record as Artistic Producer at the Manhattan Theater Club, where her productions have been seen as favorable to rising playwrights and exciting in themselves.
Music has no morality. It hangs around with the villains, and it blesses the good. It makes whatever you are “more.” June Moon by Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, has, like so many shows of its vintage, the ghosts of European operetta along for the ride. It is a show with no outright villains, only cardboard ones, and the good boy and girl end up together, as they must in this kind of tale. Innocents are the story. They overcome all the impossibilities. Can there be anything more difficult in the acting profession than playing an innocent well?
When a musical is given a revival it is usually because of the music, the dancing, the subject of the story or a singular character at which the most talented actor of the day can take a turn. Sometimes all four (think The King and I or Gypsy). In the case of Animal Crackers the 1928 musical, it is the three S’s: shtick, slapstick and silliness.
For several years now, one of the joys of the Williamstown Theatre Festival has been the revivals of obscure, but cherishable British plays of the 1960’s and 70’s, David Storey’s Home, for example or Simon Gray’s Quartermaine’s Terms, to name two examples. Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man is a late (1979) product of the period, even if it is by no means obscure today, thanks mostly to David Lynch’s remarkable film (1980), and even if it was written by an American.
The set of Lucy Boyle’s The Blue Deep, invites us to join Grace Miller at her Sag Harbor poolside, a pleasant enough scene, perhaps in some ways the reduced modern equivalent of the garden terrace of Algernon’s country house in The Importance of Being Earnest. Both of these plays which open the Williamstown Theatre Festival are about leisured families and are set, except for the first act of Earnest, in their comfortable country settings. At least two of Shakespeare and Company’s season openers are about families as well, Parasite Drag, and King Lear. It’s a wonder the Berkshire Visitors Bureau hasn’t started a family-oriented promotion over them. Certainly none of the families on view at WTF are in anywhere near the parlous danger of the unwholesome midwesterners of Parasite Drag. In the one instance where bullets fly, we know they’re only blanks, like everything else in that particular production. In The Blue Deep, on the other hand, there is breakage, first a beer bottle, then a cookie jar. A yet greater peril comes from the Super Glue used to repair the jar.