Theater archives

Vieux Carre Gives Tennessee Williams No (French) Quarter


Truth in packaging: The program says, all in caps, The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carré. And that’s it. The words you hear are all by Williams; what you see is largely consonant with other productions staged by Elizabeth LeCompte for the Wooster Group. Yet you may find yourself still wondering, after two intermissionless hours, what the two shared that could tempt the Group to choose this writer and this play.

Nothing either appalling or scandalous occurs; some passages, when one sensibility or the other briefly holds sway, are even enjoyable. But no merging occurs, either, no artistic meeting of minds that could make the event feel complete or fulfilling. The resolute loner of a theater poet and the equally resolute performing collective with its arcane methodology simply never find common ground. At best, occasionally, you glimpse them waving at each other, like sociable neighbors, from opposing premises.

Though hardly ranking with the touchstone works that merit constant revival, Vieux Carré (1977) is one of the more familiar plays of Williams’s late period. This is its fourth major New York production; the third, which Austin Pendleton directed for the Pearl Theatre in 2009, gave the clearest account of the script’s values.

Set in Williams’s recollections of a New Orleans rooming house where he stayed in the late 1930s—the hero, called only The Writer (Ari Fliakos), supplies past-tense narration—the piece has strong scenes filled with pungent language, but never fully coalesces. Its unfinished quality stems, in part, from the familiarity of its materials: The eccentric denizens of Mrs. Wire’s dilapidated rooms, all haunted in their various ways by sexual longing and fear of impending death, suggest figures from many previous plays, shoved together in the cramped space, Williams’s equivalent for the valise into which Marcel Duchamp slotted miniatures of his collected works.

The Writer struggles to find his artistic voice while fretting over both his impaired eyesight (like Williams’s own) and his uncertain sexuality. His co-tenants, many likewise artists, seem to echo his woes in amplified form, all ravaged by ailments and desperate for physical affection. Jane, a well-bred fashion illustrator from New York, dying of a blood disease, suffers through her sexual addiction to the loutish, uncaring Tye, who sponges off her. Nightingale, an elderly, TB-ridden failed painter, reduced to working tourist joints as a quick-sketch artist, boozes and futilely chases street pickups after hours. Mrs. Wire herself pines, in alcoholic semi-dementia, for her long-lost son when not bullyragging her boarders or boasting about her gumbo. In one of the script’s few glimmers of dramatic development, she turns her front parlor into a bargain restaurant, employing The Writer as waiter, till he finally makes his escape.

The Writer’s waiterdom is blurry, mentioned only briefly in passing, like most events in Vieux Carré. The criss-crossing characters, like a fluttered portfolio of quick sketches, are the work’s point. Renouncing Williams’s faded atmosphere in favor of its own customary post-industrial debris, the Wooster Group tries to evoke this musty warren of rooms with metal scaffolding, video monitors, and a sound score heavy with crash-box effects. Its principals, other than Fliakos, do double duty, Kate Valk playing Mrs. Wire and Jane, Scott Shepherd playing Tye and Nightingale.

A cluttered platform that slides from left to right stands in for multiple bedrooms. LeCompte’s staging, too, feels cluttered, shadow-ridden but never in the least haunted: Over-explicitness is more her approach. Blips of gay porn flicker on the monitors while the characters anguish, as if Williams’s double entendres needed spelling out; the sexually indecisive Writer flaunts himself before Nightingale in a posing strap. (“You have interesting eyes,” Shepherd says, staring at Fliakos’s exposed butt cheeks.)

Once or twice, the image pileup generates a distinctive quality, suggesting an edition of Williams illustrated by some unsuitable artist—Ivan Albright, perhaps. Three or four times, LeCompte leaves the dialogue to do its work, proving that her three able leads could play these roles in a more fully conceived production. But the overall result is ineffectual: a text that already falls short, approached in a way that cuts off, rather than extends, its possible poetic reach. From these strangers, Williams gets little kindness.