The Gentleman Caller
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors
Daniel K. Isaac (William Inge), Juan Francisco Villa (Tennessee Williams) Photo by: Maria Baranova
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors
Just as Tennessee Williams called his first great work, The Glass Menagerie, a “memory play,” playwright Philip Dawkins (Charm) patterns his new Abingdon Theater Company production, The Gentleman Caller, as a memory play. True enough. The events in both plays are narrated by one of the lead characters and rely on memories. (An interesting side note: The Gentleman Caller was the working title of The Glass Menagerie.)
At the Cherry Lane Theater, Dawkins' play depicts the actual meetings of two of America's greatest playwrights, Tennessee Williams (Juan Francisco Villa) and William Inge (Daniel K. Isaac). There are facts but in general, you have to rely on the writer's artistry. It is a fact that both were hard drinkers and homosexuals. Williams was flamboyant and promiscuous while Inge remained locked in the closet although he was a long-time close friend and a rumored lover of actress Barbara Baxley.
In Act I, it is 1944 and Tennessee Williams had just written The Glass Menagerie and returned to his hometown, St. Louis. Inge was working at the St. Louis Star-Times, writing criticism and interviews. He invites Williams to his garden apartment for an interview. (Actually, Williams later wrote that he had invited Inge to his home for the interview, but, as Williams liked to say, "whatever"). Over the evening, the actual interview is put aside as the Tenn and Bill drink heavily, display their mutual attraction, circle around each other playing at sex and exhibiting the vast personality differences between Williams' wit and the inhibited Inge.
Despite the banter and some teasing, there is no sexual chemistry between Williams and Inge although they seemed to enjoy each other's company. Williams notes, "The gentleman will be… someone to me." Sounds a bit ambiguous. It's apparent that the one recurring question in the play is the possibility of a sexual relationship. In fact, this seems to be the question that most interested Dawkins but whether or not this ever factually happened has not been accredited.
In one spontaneous moment, Inge leaps on an Williams, stopping short of rape, a performance of slapdash comedy that humiliates Inge. Williams, who is amused at the whole thing, says smoothly, "It’s perfectly natural. Just like the sweet, lovely singing of the nightingale."
In Act II, later that year, Inge travels to Chicago to review the opening of The Glass Menagerie and visits Williams in his hotel. It is New Year's Eve and they both fall in a mood of romance, maybe even love, although Williams has stated, "The truth is I never allow myself to love fully. To love like that, with abandon, losing yourself? It too closely resembles madness." Inge, impressed having just seeing The Glass Menagerie, tells Williams, "You are all powerful to move me. You are… my god!, you’re my god!"
At one point, Williams puts on a recording of The Ink Spots singing, "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire," and invites Bill to dance with him on the bed. It is a sweet moment that smolders with intimacy more than sexuality, eyes teary and Williams mouthing the words, "...a flame in your heart." It's a respite in time that cannot last and suddenly the record catches, and catches, and catches until Bill turns off the Victrola.
The cross-racial casting is questionable. Columbian-descended Juan Francesco Villa plays a bawdy Williams and even resembles him. Inge, who was actually tall, is played with reserve by a slight Korean-American, Daniel K. Isaac, who is shorter than Williams.
Dawkins refers often to characters in the plays written by these playwrights. Note, Come Back Little Sheba and Inge's dog that ran away, a huge bed defining Brick's bedroom in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, William referring to a story he is mulling over that "concerns a woman named Blanche," (a future Streetcar Named Desire). After a few of these references, they feel gratuitous.
Williams' work obviously influenced Inge but also vice versa since Williams sent a working copy of Inge's Farther Off From Heaven to his agent Audrey Wood and by 1950, Inge's literary fame was launched with Come Back Little Sheba. Predicting Inge's approach toward celebrity, Williams gives him words of warning, "Nothing will ever be enough again. You’ll be loved by everyone until you’re not. You’ll be the first name on everyone’s tongue for a spell, and then you’ll be forgotten."
Tony Speciale's meandering direction lightens the talky book by zeroing in on Williams' wit and in-and-out Southern drawl. Scenic designer Sara C. Walsh, with lighting by Zane Blane, sets an impressionistic mood with precarious towers of paper scripts topped by lamps, columns of words that could easily topple and float off. You can't depend on imagination and memories to solidly explore these two complex men, both outstanding portrayers of American lifestyles and characters.
The Gentleman Caller
Cherry Lane Theater
38 - Commerce St, New York, NY
Previews: May 5, 2018. Opening: May. 10, 2018. Closing: May 26, 2018
https://www. Running time: Two hours. One intermission
Cast: Daniel K. Isaac (William Inge), Juan Francisco Villa (Tennessee Williams)
Playwright: Philip Dawkins
Director: Tony Speciale
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
Also can be read on TotalTheater.com