Theater archives

Private Prisons


Thomas Lanier Williams had not yet become Tennessee Williams when he wrote Not About Nightingales in 1937­38, though he used the name when submitting a packet of plays that included it to the Group Theater, which sensibly awarded him $100 for his one-acts, and sent Nightingales back, to lie undisturbed in his files until Vanessa Redgrave dug it up. She might have let it lie without undue harm. A literary curio that adds no more than a few footnotes to Williams’s reputation, Nightingales is mainly notable as a lesson in the ways even a self-generating, poetically fecund talent like Williams can learn by mimicking the currently popular models, and shaping his sensibility to his idea of the market taste. Though streaked with hints of the real Williams to come, the play is chiefly an imitation of something else— a standard-issue ’30s prison movie— carpentered up to please somebody else: the “socially conscious” New Yorkers who made up the Group and its audience. Though based on a horrifying actual case (see Jay Dixit’s article in issue 7), Williams’s script runs through the predictable types and relationships set up in early talkies like The Big House and The Criminal Code, dressing them in his notion of Depression-era p.c.

More interesting than Williams’s attempts to replicate the slick pattern are his lapses from it. The villainous warden who drives the men to revolt and then tortures them is given a gaze of hypnotic power, in the Gothic-monster tradition. (Some of Williams’s earliest stories appeared in Weird Tales.) An overtly effeminate prisoner, called The Queen, is written to be played for pathos instead of comedy, a notion that would have sat no better with Broadway-goers of the time than with the keepers of Hollywood’s Production Code. In quick-flash scenes that might still raise questions about authorial motive and ethics, Williams shows the agony to which the rebellious prisoners are subjected, locked in a windowless room at 150-degree heat. And he has his proletarian hero, Butch O’Fallon— even the name sounds tailor-made for Wallace Beery— bounce back from the torture to exact an equally brutal revenge, without even a letup in his tough-guy speechmaking; the last few scenes evoke Monogram Pictures rather than reality.

At its worst, Nightingales confirms skeptics like Mary McCarthy, whose famously captious review found tourist-trap images of lowlife even in A Streetcar Named Desire. That there’s another side to the argument is indicated here by a device that virtually invites the audience to join Williams in tourist class: The play opens and closes with a voice-over from the deck of a tour boat passing the prison island— a boat which, at the end, unknown to its guide, may be carrying the better-spoken of the play’s two heroes to freedom. Canary Jim, the warden’s pet trusty and resident snitch, has been playing for the convicts’ side all along. “I was your friend,” the warden pleads with him at their final confrontation, to which Jim replies, in one of the script’s few truly great moments, “I wasn’t yours.” The man who could build a factitious, cliché-ridden script to that exchange would surely go on to write something extraordinary.

If we had a real repertory theater that might put up a few dozen performances of Nightingales as part of its ongoing work, expending resources on this curiosity might make sense. But New York has no such theater, so the work has been mounted, as a commercial speculation at Broadway prices, in a coproduction by institutional theaters in London and Houston that does neither city very much credit. The uptown Circle in the Square is notoriously the worst possible place to stage almost anything, but Trevor Nunn’s flat, perfunctory production strikes a new low even for that spatial hell. Hints all over the script show Williams’s interest in the Group’s Stanislavsky-based way of creating a scenic atmosphere and a sense of each character’s life that gave their productions such excitement. Nunn not only doesn’t do this, he does nothing else instead, plodding blankly from one line to the next to form an unshaped and almost rhythmless pileup of repetitive scenes, in which virtually no one carries any past experience or undergoes any but the briefest emotional conflict. The one arguable exception is Sherri Parker Lee, as the job-desperate nice girl who goes to work in the warden’s office and falls in love with Canary Jim. Though victimized by some of Nunn’s worst staging ideas— including a hypnotism scene that makes Trilby look like a medical textbook— Lee at least finds a center for the role, and holds to it without lapsing into monotony. Her colleagues, unfortunately, either hammer their single notes into unbearability, like James Black’s Butch, or drift into the implausible while trying to dodge the obvious, like Finbar Lynch’s Canary Jim, whom it’s impossible to imagine surviving for eight seconds the life Williams describes. But the casting’s only what you’d expect from this kind of trade-off, with a director in charge whose take on the text is so mechanical. This is the most ineffectual, mediocre work we’ve seen from Nunn since he established his criminal record with Cats; I hope someone spays his directing career before it litters again.

Paul Scott Goodman’s adaptation of Bright Lights, Big City, like Williams’s script, is naive early work that would deserve compassion rather than anger if it weren’t so dressed up in moneymaking intentions. Wiser heads might have told Goodman that the narcissistic yuppie cokeheads who populated ’80s discos were nothing to wax romantic about. That someone smelled a second Rent in Jay McInerney’s novel must, under the circumstances, be attributed to New York Theatre Workshop’s surrealist sense of humor. What Goodman, who appears as the show’s narrator, doesn’t get is the basic New York nightlife
attitude— we’re dead so let’s have fun— which is too cynical for his less than great attempts at rock emotionality. The optimal score for this story would probably be standard show tunes perverted, starting with “Mr. Snow” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” maybe with a dream ballet set in the hero’s nasal passages.

Within the limits of the more earnest approach he’s chosen, Michael Greif keeps the show functioning. Blake Burba’s bright lights, which do most of the set decorating, are an immense help, but Greif’s strongest asset is once again a highly talented castful of relative unknowns. Patrick Wilson handles the grueling lead with persistence and skill; I also particularly liked Jacqueline Arnold, Carla Bianco, Jerry Dixon, and Napiera Daniele Groves.

Snakebit, in contrast, is a perfectly traditional— these days, you might almost say “classic”— piece of New York theater. It does just what it sets out to do, and does it reassuringly well, with smart writing, astute direction (by Jace Alexander), and acting that goes somewhat above those excellent reliabilities in quality. The jilted half of an L.A. gay couple, moving out because he can’t afford the rent by himself, has to cope with house guests— his hetero best friends from back East— as well as with his griefs, which turn out to be complexly ensnarled with theirs. If you feel like picking at issues, David Marshall Grant’s funny, aptly vivid dialogue gives you a few dozen to pick at, from homophobia to welfare systems. If you just want to enjoy the intrigue, his cunning way with the traditional materials keeps you guessing. And if you want to bask in human experience, you can simply watch the deflected pain bounce out of Jodi Markell’s bright eyes or slide down from Geoffrey Nauffts’s flatlined smile. Snakebit may not be the earth-shattering experience of all time, but in this year full of near misses and fumbles, the simple collaboration of a dozen people who actually know their business looks like a working soda fountain at the bottom of Death Valley.