Theater archives

In Masks Outrageous and Austere: An Attempted Rescue


Almost every day of his adult life, Tennessee Williams wrote. He cultivated an indulgence in alcohol, in various prescribed and unprescribed medications, and occasionally in hallucinogens, and still he wrote. In his later years, the indulgence veered downward into a virtual dependence on some combination of these external stimuli, and even then he wrote. More than any preparation he ingested, the drug that kept Tennessee Williams alive was the potent one he emitted: words, meant for speaking aloud by the characters peopling his tropically fecund imagination, in whatever situation he dreamed up for them.

The compulsion to write had its tragic mishaps, but also its virtues. Even when his medicated brain was at its foggiest, Williams virtually never wrote a line that a skilled actor could not employ to good effect. When he could hold his characters in steady focus, the lines often piled up to sustain the effect, sometimes powerfully. Occasionally, he would strike a vein of genuine poetry, with a ring of epigrammatic truth. I am not alone in thinking that the confused welter of his later output might contain several unjustly underrated works worth rescuing.

The well-meaning souls who have organized the current attempt to rescue Williams’s In Masks Outrageous and Austere (Culture Project) presumably agree with me. They believe this large late work, left unfinished, is worth salvaging. So they have put it up onstage, in an elaborate multimedia production by David Schweizer. I wish I could say that the results proved them right. A variety of hands have apparently tinkered with the variant drafts and alternative scenes that Williams left behind, in an attempt to pull them into some sort of playable order, but no order appears. The scenes still contradict or, worse, reiterate each other. No drama takes shape, and the result adds to Williams’s reputation only the honor of having continued, even at his most mentally debilitated, to flail for a solution to a story he had gotten hold of (or that had gotten hold of him) and had never fully found a way to tell.

That story has a variety of component parts, some already familiar from late works performed in Williams’s lifetime, here piled shakily on top of one another like the segments of an indigestible seven-layer cake. The top layer is the saga of an enormously rich woman, this time called Clarissa “Babe” Foxworth (Shirley Knight), trying to dominate those around her as she simultaneously steels herself for, and battles to ward off, death. In earlier renderings, like the various unsuccessful versions of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, this figure is a sort of coarse retired artist, an ex-chorus girl who has outlived a multiplicity of rich men and is struggling to write her memoirs.

But in Masks Outrageous, however, Babe is simply a domineering rich woman, heiress to a gigantic fortune controlled by her unseen dying father. She and her entourage are kept under a kind of lavish house arrest, by a set of sinister factotums called “Gideons,” like hotel-room Bibles, at an indeterminate locale. Her unhappiness, and the Gideons’ restraints, both seem to target her husband, a blatantly homosexual poet named Billy (Robert Beitzel), whom she has acquired for his androgynous charm.

Their nerves frayed by the situation’s inexplicable menace—the paranoid political undertone suggests Williams’s The Red Devil Battery Sign—Billy and his loyal-but-is-he-really-so secretary-lover, Jerry (Sam Underwood), scheme, indecisively, to escape both Babe’s clutches and their enforced isolation. Complicating the situation are the neighborly Mrs. Gorse-Bracken (Alison Fraser), who warbles operatically like the heroine of Williams’s one-act The Gnädiges Fräulein, and her mentally retarded but sexually enthusiastic son (Connor Buckley). They too seem threatened by some unexplained menace. The paranoia, like the fevered sexuality and the nervous repetitiveness, grows thickly on this script.

Unhappily, these prosy thickets produce only a few meager poetic blooms. Schweizer’s production strives to animate the dry material with fancy-dress electronic tricks that only make the underlying event seem more worn. Knight fights valiantly against her shapeless and apparently unlearnable role; Fraser chirrups determinedly; Beitzel gamely sustains a fraught half-smile. The boys are cute, which is their function. But Williams had long since mined whatever ore this tale held; it should have been left in the library for scholars to ponder in silence.