Sometimes we make our friends by default, like getting picked last for kickball. Choosing a circle of glittering and stimulating personalities is a rare luxury in this world, one not afforded to the washed-up ladies of The Mutilated, a neglected Tennessee Williams one-act now appearing in a new production at the New Ohio Theatre after a run at the 8th annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. This boozy, jazz-infused revival is as funny as it is brutally honest.
An epic flop when it premiered at the Longacre Theatre in 1966 as part of a double bill titled Slapstick Tragedy (it ran for 16 previews, seven performances), The Mutilated probably never belonged on Broadway in the first place. It feels more naturally at home down by the river on Christopher Street, an area that is still haunted by the ghosts of hedonism past (see the abandoned Badlands Video across the street), even if the actual participants in that hedonism have long since ceded the territory to “upstanding” gentrifiers.
To walk into the New Ohio Theater is to recapture some of that lost seediness. As the audience takes their seats, a wild street party is already in full swing. It’s Christmas Eve in New Orleans’ French Quarter, sometime in the 1930s. A hot jazz band plays (Tin Pan, led by charismatic front man Jesse Selengut) as revelers dance, sing along, and get drunk. The aforementioned washed-up ladies are alleged oil heiress Trinket Dugan (frequent John Waters collaborator Mink Stole) and her hooker frenemy Celeste Delacroix Griffin (downtown darling Penny Arcade).
Trinket lives in the rundown Silver Dollar Hotel where she can often be found wasting her time away sipping jug wine while staring at her reflection in the vanity mirror. One would think that an oil heiress could afford slightly better digs, but one also gets the sense that, like Blanche and Amanda before her, Trinket’s Southern gentility is all a façade. Stole captures this fragile vulnerability with a barely concealed regret and a hunger for real affection. She regularly waves around a roll of bills big enough “choke a horse” and it becomes painfully obvious that this is her life savings, her only leverage she has in a quest for human interaction. You just want to take her aside and tell her to put it away.
Celeste has no such delusions of grandeur. Recently evicted from the hotel, she seems content to noisily beat around the lobby until Trinket leaves so she can break into her room and drink her booze. (Trinket refuses to let her old friend into the room while she’s there, having finally tired of her blackmail.) You see, Celeste scrawls some pretty nasty graffiti on the hotel walls about Trinket’s “mutilation” (a mastectomy that Trinket desperately tries to mask). Arcade is delightfully bombastic and crude in her portrayal, waving her ample bosom around the stage as if it were a deadly weapon. Or perhaps it’s just to taunt Trinket with what she does not have, as Trinket taunts Celeste with her greenbacks.
When two sailors on shore appear at the girls’ favorite bar, their game of one-upmanship and undermining becomes considerably more dangerous. There’s the beefy Bruno (Niko Papastefanou) and the considerably drunker and more violent (but thinner) Slim (Patrick Darwin Williams). Guess which one Trinket decides to take back to her room…
Anxiety about blackmail, ridiculously delusional women, and a self-destructive fascination with rough trade are par for the course in the Tennessee Williams universe. This lost gem of a play excels in placing those sublime feelings of loneliness and regret in a musical and vibrant underworld inhabited by vagrants, whores, and pious queens (Tom Drummer). Director Cosmin Chivu leads an 18-person cast in fully realizing Williams’ vision, with a special attention to small details: The sad and weather-worn Christmas decorations in Trinket’s room are a particularly nice touch.
Completing the picture, Selengut has set Williams’ original lyrics to his own distinctively haunting American roots music. The chorus numbers are truly breathtaking. (Nothing beats a huge cast singing at you in a small theater.) These Christmas carolers sing to the heavens, “A Miracle, a miracle,” praying for a redemption that may never come. On top of singing and playing trumpet with the band, Selengut also appears as Jack in Black, a grim reaper-esque figure with a smoky voice. He ominously stalks the stage, serving as a reminder of our limited time, but also a warning to use that time wisely. If more people could realize that, it would truly be a miracle.