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Witnessing a play by Target Margin’s David Herskovits, you find yourself faced with an excess of questions. In the case of The Really Big Once, a distillation of a doomed collaboration between Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan, the list might include: Why are all the actors wearing glitter make-up? Why have they collapsed to the floor? Why is a photo of Kazan worn as a headband? Why does the all-pink set resemble an internal organ?
Herskovits is, like his mentor Richard Foreman, one of Off-Broadway’s most alarmingly intelligent directors, so these questions probably possess cogent answers. Yet with Herskovits, as with Foreman, approaching the show as an intellectual problem will likely lead to a headache. Better to yield to the larkish sound design, the antic performances, the studied ugliness of the set and costumes—to lose yourself in the sensory whirl.
That same tension—the desire to make sense of a play on the one hand, and the desire to give over to its make-believe on the other—animates the plot, such as it is, of The Really Big Once. In 1946, Williams wrote the subtropical fantasia Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, which Kazan urged him to expand from a one-act into a full-length play. Kazan fought for greater intelligibility, sending notes such as “But Christ, does it need integration and clarity!” Williams, by contrast, insisted that he wanted his play to “make my points by evocation and poetic allusion” and “give these audiences my own sense of something wild and unrestricted.” This conflict resulted in a notorious 1953 Broadway flop, starring Eli Wallach.
Herskovits and his cast cobble together their play from primary sources—letters, telegrams, autobiographies, ministrations from Kazan’s widow. The ensuing script is highly abstract—you, like Kazan, may long for greater “integration and clarity.” But the show’s few standard bio-play scenes, more comprehensible and more dull than what surrounds them, should kill that craving. If The Really Big Once ultimately fails to make the case for the importance of Camino Real, it speaks well of Herskovits’s desire to continue Williams’s mission—to forsake the neatness of psychological realism for something messier, wilder, more true.