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Ninth and Joanie

In Masks Outrageous and Austere

Shirley Knight delivers a bravura performance in this world premiere production of Tennessee Williams' final, full-length play.

By New York City
Robert Beitzel, Shirley Knight, and
Sam Underwood in
In Masks Outrageous and Austere
(© Carol Rosegg)
Robert Beitzel, Shirley Knight, and
Sam Underwood in
In Masks Outrageous and Austere
(© Carol Rosegg)
Shirley Knight delivers a bravura performance in the world premiere production of Tennessee Williams' In Masks Outrageous and Austere, presented by the Culture Project. Director David Schweizer has spearheaded the effort to bring the work -- the final, full-length play by the acclaimed playwright -- to the stage, and should be commended for both that effort and for the bold, stylish and very funny production currently on view.

Knight stars as Clarissa "Babe" Foxworth, an extremely wealthy older woman who has acquired a much younger husband, named Billy (Robert Beitzel). However, the marriage remains unconsummated, in no small part to Billy's romantic attachment to his young male secretary, Jerry (Sam Underwood).

As the play begins, the trio -- along with Babe's maid, Peg (Pamela Shaw) -- have been whisked away to an undisclosed location by the Gideons (played by Ward Horton, Scot Charles Anderson, and Kaolin Bass), a mysterious security detail protecting Babe that seems to have rather far-reaching powers -- and possibly nefarious intentions.

Knight seemed a little uncertain about some of her lines at the press preview I attended, but barreled through her numerous speeches with such a fierce commitment to her character that it scarcely mattered. She knows precisely how to modulate volume and intensity to land a line of dialogue for maximum comic effect. And a scene in which Babe attempts to seduce a mechanic named Joey (Christopher Halladay) is deliciously campy and a definite highlight of the show.

Beitzel's use of a Southern accent is a bit labored, and unfortunately undercuts what should be Billy's natural charm. Underwood plays Jerry's hard edges a bit too stridently, and some subtle gradations in his work could make his character both more sympathetic and complex.

Alison Fraser is terrific as Mrs. Gorse-Bracken, a rather eccentric neighbor who comes calling, along with her mentally challenged son, Playboy (Connor Buckley). Rounding out the cast are Jermaine Miles and Jonathan Kim, who make a brief but bizarrely memorable appearance late in the play, and pre-recorded turns from Buck Henry and Austin Pendleton, who are seen only on video during phone conversations with on-stage characters.

Scenic designer James Noone and video/projection designer Darrel Maloney have done a fabulous job transforming the theater into an environment that highlights the all-encompassing surveillance by the Gideons. Costume designer Gabriel Berry has dressed these figures in stylish black suits and sunglasses, looking like they just stepped out of the film, The Matrix.

Like many of Williams' later works, Masks has a surreal quality full of heavy-handed symbolism. It also picks up on a theme the playwright worked with his entire career: the conflict between illusion and reality. There's a degree of messiness to the script, as parts of the plot are underdeveloped, while certain passages seem overly verbose. However, more often than not, Williams' wit and vibrant sense of theatricality shine through.


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