North of Tennessee


The Arclight Theater is
located in what appears to be the crypt— it’s certainly the basement— of a
gray-stone, quasi-Gothic church, not the place where you would most expect to find either Tennessee Williams or a performance by Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. Nevertheless, the Wallachs are down there, celebrating their half century of artistic and matrimonial partnership with a program of scenes and reminiscences, Tennessee Williams Remembered. The circumstances appear to be comfortable for all concerned: The actors’ bearing is professional but their conduct is warmly familial, and a lot of Williams’s quality gets into the atmosphere, though the event is fairly scanty as a performance of his work. It could be worse— I’ve sat through evenings that offered hours of uninterrupted Williams text and absolutely none of his special savor. And without that, the text is no use: Williams’s writing is like a pomander ball, taking its value from the remarkable mixture of scents it gives off— exotic perfumes, soothing oils, homey cooking spices, and, yes, every so often a startling whiff of rot to liven things up.

The Wallachs’ evening comes like an echo, long after the end of their working relationship with Williams, a relationship that itself faded out just as the playwright’s career was beginning to get loopier and more improbable. The Wallachs don’t speak of the later career, and one wonders if they even realize how much of the work of Williams’s second phase might suit them. The quirky little sketch called Lifeboat Drill, for instance (which premiered at the EST Marathon), or The Two Character Play— not that I’m in a hurry to see another production of that curiously botched and obsessive piece, but, like everything by Williams, it has scenes that jump vividly at you.

Williams’s later career isn’t the only thing that goes unmentioned in Tennessee Williams Remembered. Wallach and Jackson spent a good deal of time working with Williams in their early careers, but the relationship was all about work and the social occasions that accompanied it, not with the deeper bonds of friendship. This was partly Williams’s fault; the friends closest to him tended not to be stable heterosexual couples busily producing children, as the Wallachs were.

Partly, also, it came from their suffering the common doom of American theater artists: In the middle of their life’s journey, having become Broadway stars, they were swallowed up by the leviathan of southern California, which engulfed them in its sunshiny darkness until, like Jonah, they were finally spewed back to Manhattan to resume their stage careers. Their résumés, like those of most eminent American actors of their generation, have a painful gap in the middle, when they ought to have been doing the great roles, but the New York theater was not doing the great plays; movies and TV shows, which pay better, were there to be made, and there were three children to be raised. Dickens would have called this story Nobody’s Fault, the title he initially planned to use for the tale of sensitive souls crushed by the economic system that ultimately became Little Dorrit.

Happily, the Wallachs came back to us uncrushed, with their stage skills intact, and have been having a busy late flowering. Wallach is frailer than he was, but still forceful and alert. Jackson’s concentration is skittery, but her slips and hesitations don’t stop her from seizing the big moments with a power that makes most younger actresses look pretty meager in comparison. And, of course, nothing pleases an audience like watching actors who are coupled in real life play a love scene; the uxorious affection on display at the
Arclight pours over the spectators like maple syrup on pancakes.

Williams, they tell us, is the source of their relationship: They met doing an Equity Library Theater production of his one-act This Property Is Condemned for director Terese Hayden (a doyenne of the Off-Broadway movement). “We were the only two people in the cast,” Jackson tells us, “so I fell in love with him.” They do the opening scene from this play, which is about adolescent runaways— the Wallachs are well into their seventies— and then cause a collective breath-catching in the house by showing the soundless film Hayden made of the production. They look, in the film, like the children of the couple we’re watching onstage.

For most of the intermissionless evening, they work their way through the chronology of their joint career with Williams, slipping in anecdotes between the scenes they perform, a key one from each play. They do the big confrontation from Summer and Smoke (Jackson was in the original production but never got to play Alma); Mangiacavallo’s first meeting with Rosa from The Rose Tattoo (Wallach created the male lead); and the Kilroy-Esmeralda “I am sincere” love scene from Camino Real (another role Wallach originated). At the end, each of them recites a Williams poem. He does “Life Story” and she does “Gold Tooth Woman.”

But that’s the extent of the evening’s acting; the rest is amiable padding. The anecdotes are largely authentic; they include several that add up to an affectionate, admiring, but not one-dimensional portrait of producer Cheryl Crawford, who saw Williams through most of these angst-ridden productions. The Wallachs read excerpts from Williams’s correspondence with her, which suggest a delicious bedside-table book in the offing. They link their casting in Williams plays to the births of their children. They imitate Tennessee’s peculiar braying laugh and say droll things about his drinking. And before you know it, they’ve said good night and danced their way offstage.

Among the oddities in this is their refusal to track into any unpleasant aspect of the world around Williams. There’s a big buildup, involving the birth of a daughter, to Wallach’s getting the male lead in the Williams-Kazan film Baby Doll. Then, instead of discussing the controversy its feverish sexual content stirred up— among other things, Cardinal Spellman attempted to have it banned in New York— there’s an abrupt change of subject, as if somebody had said something awkward. It’s hard to see why a tribute to Tennessee Williams could downplay his constant effort to extend the boundaries of frankness, sexual and otherwise. And people who always push the envelope don’t usually end up smiling when it’s time for “The envelope, please.” But the Wallachs have nothing in particular to say about Williams’s work except that they love it, a fact borne out by their performances in the scenes. Even in roles for which they wouldn’t have been cast when younger— imagine Jackson as Serafina or Esmeralda— they bring a cogency, a passion, and a sense of erotic fun that mark them as genuine actors, not the hologrammish simulacra we usually get these days. That they need rests between the scenes is understandable; the annoyance is that their show has been so casually patched together. Actors are fine when acting or telling anecdotes; to assemble an evening they need a writer.

Gene Saks has directed this collection of materials gracefully, but its randomness shows, no matter how intense the duo gets. It’s a memory of Williams, but not a view of him; it has his feeling and words, but not his sense of shape. But this is because the Wallachs’ career, too, has a loopy shape. America doesn’t encourage its artists to build on what they have; marketing it is preferable. Coming home from the Arclight, I found myself stumbling among light battens and electric cable; they were shooting a movie across the street from my apartment. I didn’t stop to ask which young New York actors I admire were in it, eagerly waiting to get scooped up in the leviathan’s maw.

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