In the aftermath of Tennessee Williams’s years as a dominant figure on Broadway, when the commercial theater largely turned away from him, his interests sectioned off, complexly, into areas he could explore in smaller-scale works, of a kind he had always pursued in between his struggles to churn out full-evening Broadway blockbusters. One part of his mind traveled back to exploring his youth; another, inspired by the new works he was encountering in Europe and downtown, pressed forward, experimenting with his own highly personal version of Absurdism. And a third facet of his sensibility retreated into what had always been his first interest: poetry.
One of the hardiest survivors of this erratic late period in Williams’s work, 1971’s Small Craft Warnings (Studio Theatre, Theatre Row), is less a drama than a near-static prose poem, naturalistic in tone but chiefly meditative in outlook. In a seedy bar on the Southern California coast, seven rudderless souls ricochet off one another, their laments commiserated with and their fights broken up by the sympathetic barkeep who is, if anything, less anchored than they. Couples, straight and gay, split up; sympathy is offered and rejected; hatred, defiance, optimism, and despair get spouted and hooted down but pick themselves back up anyway. Death, hovering in the foggy air, only strikes offstage characters; the threatened violence onstage, like the threatened storm on the sea outside that provokes the play’s title, never occurs.
Though frustrating to watch as drama, the piece is riveting to listen to, full of pungent colloquial speech that takes startling turns upward into ordinary-guy metaphysics. The characters, like many in late Williams, often seem to echo those in his other plays; they might all have just checked out of the rooming house in Vieux Carré. Austin Pendleton, who two years ago staged the best New York production to date of that work, sensibly handles this one as more prose than action, keeping his cast in tableau, with few movements and even fewer props. The actors overall are no more than competent, but they speak clearly, and Williams’s bittersweet, chiming text reaps the benefit. Pendleton himself adds an extra edge to the proceedings, playing Quentin, a canny, self-hating gay screenwriter on the downslide, a perfect template for the mix of pure-heartedness and rot that Williams finds in all his characters.