For Tennessee Williams, playwriting was a process; he never stopped writing, and never stopped revising. Inevitably, he left behind a vast pile of un-performed scripts in various stages of completion. Four of them get their New York premieres in director Michael Kahn’s compendium Five by Tenn, framed by excerpts from Williams’s autobiographical prose, spoken by a man who makes a profession of impersonating Williams—not very convincingly, to my taste.
Regrettably, the plays Kahn has chosen and his handling of them aren’t very convincing either. Worse, with the acting-class standard I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow added for a final helping of roast beef, they make an evening that’s as heavy (the first act runs two solid hours) as it is trivial. The first two plays are novice work, one a melodramatic dry run for Glass Menagerie, the second a prentice hand’s attempt at Barry/Behrman-style high comedy. The third, of scholarly interest for its openly gay central character, is a 10-second anecdote extended to the point of numbing obviousness; the fourth is of piquant note only for showing that Williams was willing to use even his beloved D.H. Lawrence as a character in a cartoonish revue sketch. Shamelessness is a good quality in a writer, and these inferior, unimportant works are full of good things—tiny grace notes of poetry, humor, or psychology that remind you how great Williams could be when the scripts had simmered long enough. Kathleen Chalfant, Penny Fuller, David Rasche, and Robert Sella, heading the cast, all have good moments when their various inner lights and Williams’s flicker together, but flickers of good theater are all you get. Williams himself would have been the first to say they weren’t sufficient to hold his interest.