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Williams Was A Mope

June 17, 2009

My review of Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carre in Show Business Weekly.

This is the Pearl Theatre Company’s last show at its very cool theater on St. Marks Place. The troupe is moving to midtown. (Lame.) But at least we’ll still get to see these fine performers.

Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Austin Pendleton
The Pearl Theatre
80 St. Marks Place

 Review by Christopher Zara


Tennessee Williams clearly believed that everybody hurts, and there is plenty of hurting to go around in Vieux Carré. It’s easy to see why this lurching 1977 drama is so seldom performed: Although the piece comes equipped with a dark sensibility that is morbidly enticing to the diehard fatalist, its true purpose is somewhat of a chore to extract. You may leave the cozy confines of the Pearl Theatre wondering what you have just seen. It is a personal work for sure — an autobiographical treatise of Williams’s indigent salad days at a 1930s New Orleans flophouse — but the end result feels more like a yellowed photo album than a fully fleshed-out production.

The play opens on an unnamed young writer, played by Sean McNall, as he breaks the fourth wall with salty descriptions of his dilapidated French Quarter digs. He is a quiet, depressed Southern gentleman, with few employment prospects, a nonexistent social life, and a premature cataract clouding his vision. His neighbors, whom we soon meet, range in disposition from mildly demented to completely delusional. Mrs. Wire, the cranky landlady, is at first standoffish toward her young guest, though she eventually warms to him as though he were her own son. Jane (Rachel Botchan), a transplanted Yankee, battles a degenerative blood disease while trying to ditch her live-in boyfriend, Tye (Joseph Collins), an abusive homophobe. The most pathetic of the bunch, an elderly gay artist named Nightingale (George Morfogen), drools over the young protagonist like a rabid Collie, ultimately forcing him to confront his own sexuality. 

The Pearl’s solid ensemble has always been a goldmine of local talent, and Vieux Carré continues that tradition with some excellent performances. Collins is brilliant as the brash and belligerent Tye: His drunken spills are some of the finest to take place on an off-Broadway stage this year. Botchan, whose subtlety is sometimes lost under the Pearl’s weighty productions, finds her true chance to shine in the role of Jane. Her performance is as sweet as it is sad, drawing our most heartfelt affections for the terminally ill woman on the cusp of abandoning all hope. As the central character, McNall is effective in his technical execution, including his spot-on Southern drawl and appropriately sullen demeanor. As a whole, though, his performance fails to resonate as it should — a fault that may lie with the character himself, whom Williams has written as a disconnected voyeur. McNall, a Pearl regular, has proven himself an infectious stage actor, at his best when diving into animated characters like the foppish Algernon Moncrieff in Oscar Wilde’sThe Importance of Being Earnest.

The meandering storylines of Vieux Carré present director Austin Pendleton with an uphill battle, though he handles the material expertly and even with a touch of grace. Very little actually happens during the play’s three-plus hours, yet the characters somehow manage to work their way into our minds. Vieux Carré is typical of an old photo album: It’s burdensome to flip through every page, but we stick with it in the hope that one or two of the more captivating snapshots will make it all worthwhile.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Carolina Maine permalink
    July 5, 2009 4:17 am

    I love TW, and I wish I could see this production.
    Are you ever going to be on FB? I hated Twitter, but FB is fun–been on for a while now. I hope you had a Happy 4th!

  2. July 6, 2009 1:27 am

    Thanks. Same to you!

    For a long time now, I’ve been opposed to joining Mark Zuckerberg’s blue-n-white empire. I could go into it, but it’s a whole conversation. I’m starting to believe my opposition is indefensible. My arguments against it are flimsy. But I’m still not sure I can make the leap. What will people think?

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