In Austin Pendleton’s new production of Tennessee Williams’s 1977 play, Vieux Carré, the steep downward slope of the center aisle in the Pearl Theatre’s auditorium occasionally stands in for the steeper upward climb of the rickety staircase in the rundown New Orleans rooming house where Williams’s action takes place. Though not always helpful in clarifying events for the audience, this spatial inversion matches the play’s odd, topsy-turvy quality. Jumbling autobiographical reminiscence with an assortment of characters and themes recalling earlier Williams works, Vieux Carré often feels like a miniaturized, dollhouse version of its author’s oeuvre, the separate volumes blurring together as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope. And as with the miniature worlds evoked by dollhouses, its crowded smallness creates its own piquant, eccentric charm.
Set in 1938-39, when the historical Thomas Lanier Williams had not yet wholly remade himself into the mythic Tennessee Williams he would become, Vieux Carré centers on a young man called only The Writer (Sean McNall), through whose distorted vision we view the stories of the rooming house’s tenants. The word “distorted” is literal: As in other late plays—most often those dealing openly with homosexuality—Williams links his off-angle view of human behavior to his impaired eyesight.
As The Writer drifts through Vieux Carré‘s scattered scenes—experiencing, observing, and sometimes sliding into past-tense narration—other characters call attention to his ocular oddity, a point on which, as on his sexual inclinations, Williams makes him comically defensive. The “old square” in the French Quarter is where unformed, ambitious Tom from St. Louis will learn to accept life’s vagaries, including his own, and draw from them the writing for which we cherish Tennessee. In reality, Williams only stayed in the rooming house at 722 Toulouse Street—Vieux Carré gives the exact address—for a few short months; in perceived experience, he grants them the accumulated grit of years.
While The Writer struggles with his work, his sexuality, his miserable financial circumstances, and his tendency to judge others superficially, the house’s denizens serve him as continual, perplexing distractions, nuisances who slowly evolve into figures he learns to cherish both as people and as potential source material. Imagining a young would-be playwright’s irritation with such interruptions, the critic Kenneth Tynan once suggested jokingly that the best way to learn playwriting was to “pause on the stairs.” Vieux Carré demonstrates, in effect, that Williams had taken Tynan’s advice two decades before it was given.
722 Toulouse Street apparently provided the playwright with a library of models to draw from for the rest of his literary life: the washed-up old painter, Nightingale (George Morfogen), tubercular but still horny; Jane (Rachel Botchan), the neurasthenic, refined young fashion illustrator, locked in sexual bondage to Tye (Joseph Collins), the coarse, brutal stud she can’t stand but equally can’t resist; the haughty, elderly spinsters downstairs (Beth Dixon and Pamela Payton-Wright), affecting to live well while rooting through restaurant garbage cans for scraps. And looming over all is the half-mad landlady, Mrs. Wire (Carol Schultz), who, shadowed by her disputatious servant, Nursie (Claudia Robinson), bullies, badgers, and badmouths her tenants while backhandedly showering them with unexpected charity or getting lost, like them, in her recollections of better days.
This thick gumbo of intersecting lives savors of so many previous Williams plays that it sometimes seems thinly flavored in itself, a dish made all of leftovers. Yet the work’s best scenes—Nightingale’s simultaneous attempt to befriend and to seduce The Writer, Jane’s last-ditch effort to break with Tye, the late-night kitchen chat in which Mrs. Wire unburdens herself—have the plangent freshness of Williams’s best work. And since he never wrote a line that an actor couldn’t speak with effect, even its stalest patches have the ring of playability. Awkwardly assembled and hard to shape onstage, Vieux Carré nonetheless has an autumnal charm. It suggests an old collector’s last hasty rummage through the treasures he’s spent his life contemplating, before he consigns them to a museum.
Pendleton has struggled—engagingly, but not always successfully—with the work’s tangle of overlapping scenes. Most at ease with actor interactions, he gets glowing results whenever Williams simply leaves two people alone together to talk; Botchan and Morfogen, actors who always supply assured, detailed work, come off most effectively. Where the script moves into its frequent criss-crossings of simultaneous scenes or uproars just offstage, Pendleton has a tougher time; occasionally, McNall, representing a battery of narrated voices while playing his own role, gets submerged in the chaos. But a rare Williams is always worth seeing, and Vieux Carré, like the memories that prompted it, leaves a distinctive fragrance behind.
I kept scenting that Williams fragrance all through Zakiyyah Alexander’s 10 Things to Do Before I Die (McGinn-Cazale Theatre). Vida (Natalie Venetia Belcon), one of Alexander’s two sibling heroines, spends much onstage time debating A Streetcar Named Desire with the high school drama class she teaches. Uptight at work but promiscuous in bed, Vida makes a reconstituted Blanche-Stella pairing with her more scattered writer sister Nina (Tracie Thoms). Alexander mines rich material from their knotty relationship, but has an even harder time than the aging Williams sorting it into dramatic order: She has an ambitious young playwright’s excitement over every possible topic, theme, and tactic. Though her attempts at hallucinatory nightmare poesy (like Williams’s) are clunkily earnest, her seemingly prosaic everyday scenes often have the ring of poetic truth. Never wholly adding up, her play is full of talent, feeling, and promise: a good choice for Second Stage Uptown.
Alarmingly, Jackson Gay’s production often clutters it with fancy lighting and scenic effects; a bare stage would have let this script speak more freely. But like Pendleton, Gay has done unerring actor-work with her uniformly excellent cast. Kyle Beltran is exceptionally moving as Vida’s most motivated student, and Belcon, utterly transformed from the saucy, giddy figure she’s cut in recent musicals, creates a dazzling, authoritative portrait of a control freak on the verge of inner collapse.