David Rasche and Kathleen Chalfantin Five by Tenn(Photo © Joan Marcus)
David Rasche and Kathleen Chalfant
in Five by Tenn
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
A reviewer's impulse is to say that no one's doing anyone a favor by presenting Five by Tenn, the first New York look at four Tennessee Williams one-acts plus a reprise of the gloomy I Can't Imagine Tomorrow, but the wind that blew the production this way may not be entirely ill. Two groups will benefit from the ordeal: Williams scholars who can see the author working out his themes on the way to or from their best realizations, and fledgling dramatists who realize that even great playwrights sometimes stumble while attempting to find and keep their footing. All others need not apply unless they'd like to examine the myriad ways in which this superb playwright could be feeble. And if they feel that Williams is overrated, they'll come away with that opinion reinforced, for the flailing that the author does in these five entries -- two of which are world premieres -- is startling.

Just before fleeing during the intermission of the Manhattan Theatre Club production, my dismayed theater companion asked plaintively, "Why would Williams come back from the dead to introduce bad work?" She was referring to the fact that actor Jeremy Lawrence, who resembles Williams but doesn't have the whiskey-soaked voice down, is employed to wander around the stage without a drink in hand but speaking some of the playwright's actual remarks in order to put the pieces in some context. "There's nothing I dread more than trying to tell about a play," he says at one point. Were Williams alive, he might dread the public presentation of these particular plays, which he may never have wanted seen before he'd gotten some of his famous rewriting done.

Just before unveiling the final entry, I Can't Imagine Tomorrow, the stage version of Williams says, "I don't complete many sentences these days." It's a comment that Michael Kahn, who compiled and directed Five By Tenn, might have taken as a hint that some of Williams' plays are like his sentences: unfinished, meant to be allowed to fade away unnoticed. But here they are, performed with varying dollops of Tennessee Williams Acting Clichés by Penny Fuller, David Rasche, Robert Sella, Cameron Folmar, Hunter Gilmore, Myk Watford, and Kathleen Chalfant. For many theatergoing regulars, it's enough of a damning statement to say that even Chalfant is only so-so here. The production has a flexible set by James Noone, costumes by Catherine Zuber (who runs up one of her superb gowns for Chalfant), lighting by Traci Klainer, and sound design by Scott Killian.

In the curtain-raiser, Summer at the Lake, Donald Fenway (Folmar, all busy hands) refuses to sit still while his demanding mother (Fuller) fans herself and prattles in the summer heat. After the two sweat and verbally swat each other about the prospect of their impending impoverishment thanks to an absent husband/father, Donald finally gets out of the house for a swim from which it seems he doesn't plan to return. No wonder, given the exasperating self-involvement of his mother. The third character is the maid, Anna (Chalfant), who says little in a heavy middle-European accent. Incidentally, the theme of leaving as an irrepressible impulse surfaces here and floats through a few of the other plays; other themes appearing, like survival of the flightiest, are standard Williams.

The Fat Man's Wife, written in 1938 after Williams had begun to be acquainted with New York society and perhaps after he'd perused John O'Hara's Pal Joey, concerns Vera Cartwright (Chalfant), whose cheating husband Josie (Rasche), goes out one late night seeking -- ahem -- a bottle of aspirin and creates the opportunity for young playwright Dennis Merriwether (Sella) to drop in and try to convince the long-suffering Vera to come away with him. Williams' jejune attempt to emulate Philip Barry and S.N. Behrman is a hoot, but the wrong kind. Far worse is And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens, written in 1959, when Williams apparently decided he could deal openly with the subject of homosexuality. He has New Orleans transvestite Candy Delaney (Folmar) bring home the Stanley Kowalski-esque Karl (Watford), thereby forcing the audience to wait for the lout's inevitable assault. It's brutal when it finally comes but only after Candy has paraded some diaphanous frocks and only after two light-in-the-loafers upstairs tenants (Sella, Gilmore) have visited. More than anything, the piece registers as a mawkish Streetcar Named Desire parody.

Thus ends the first half, to be followed in the second by Adam and Eve on a Ferry, the least objectionable of the items since it's merely a skit in which D.H. Lawrence (!), played by Rasche, hosts an American woman, Mrs. Peabody (Fuller) at his Alpes-Maritime villa. She's after his advice on a romantic episode she's botched. Though he mocks her, he eventually helps solve the problem, and she departs in ecstasy. Frieda Lawrence (Chalfant, waving another accent) crosses once or twice carrying a plant and with a superior expression on her face. The program closer is Williams' slit-your-wrists piece I Can't Imagine Tomorrow about despondent characters identified as One (Chalfant) and Two (Rasche), which already indicates that something pretentious this way comes. Wearing a wine-stained dress (ooh, symbolism!), she's dying of an undisclosed illness; unable to complete sentences, he's interloping and trying to connect. Part of a trilogy titled Dragon Country (ooh, more symbolism), the piece was written in 1970, when Williams was depressed. It's enough to depress anybody, as is the entire project.