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Small Craft Warnings

Michael Surabian and Elise Stone
in Small Craft Warnings
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
In the oeuvre of Tennessee Williams, Small Craft Warnings falls rather uncomfortably between two of the author's lesser-known nightmares, In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel and Out Cry, which were produced on Broadway in 1969 and 1973, respectively. Small Craft Warnings did not have the distinction of premiering on the Great White Way; rather, it opened Off-Broadway at the Truck and Warehouse Theater on April 2, 1972. The play had started life as a one-act called Confessional. It was later expanded by Williams to two and a half hours and given a new title alluding to the fact that its characters are storm-tossed, lost souls.

It's commendable that the celebrated Jean Cocteau Repertory has opened its 31st season of presenting classics by delivering this difficult play to its adoring subscribers. Small Craft Warnings is historically significant in that it is one of a fistful of works that signaled Williams' literary demise. Take a look at what followed SCW and you'll find a mishmash of mostly over-the-top melodramas with no distinction beyond the fact that they were written by a former giant of the American theater. (The Jean Cocteau Rep holds the distinction of having premiered Williams' final play, Something Cloudy, Something Clear; having attended that production, I can attest that, by 1980, Tennessee was coming up with dialogue that might have been written by a mental patient.)

But let's not digress. Small Craft Warnings is set in a seaside bar--a sort of precursor to all the TGIFs and Hooters that have sprouted up--where a bunch of people congregate to swill some gin and tell some lies. The proprietor of this rustic dive, Monk (Craig Smith) is a likeable guy who tells no tales and lets bygones be bygones; anyone can belly-up to his bar as long as they've got a buck or two. On this particular, storm-threatened evening, Monk holds court to a gaggle of lowlifes who spend way too much time reciting monologues of woe. Their ringleader is a brazen chick named Leona Dawson (Elise Stone), one of those outsized characters Williams loved to invent to see who could possibly play her on stage. Leona has burst into Monk's bar only to discover her lover, Bill McCorkle (Michael Surabian), getting a hand job from Violet (Kathryn Foster), a kook who is carrying a suitcase but is bound for nowhere. The old alcoholic Doc (Harris Berlinsky) takes up some room at the bar where he mostly mourns the fact that he's a walking medical fiasco, while the misfit Steve (Christopher Black) pines for Violet. Soon, a grumpy gay man named Quentin (Jason Crowl) enters with a twinkie named Bobby (Edward Griffin).

Michael Surabian, Craig Smith,
Kathryn Foster, and Elise Stone
in Small Craft Warnings
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Quentin is obviously Williams' alter ego, and it's a sad state of affairs as this sad, listless character, who seems to be floating on a Quaalude high, delivers one of the creepiest monologues ever written. There is very little plot in Small Craft Warnings--just a lot of talk, talk, talk. Doc goes off to birth a baby, an act that is going to send him running from the police. Leona and Bill split up, but not until after they have screamed themselves silly. Ironically, they are probably the only characters in the play that have some inkling of what love is.

Except for the edification of die-hard Tennessee Williams fans who need to see this play in order to fully understand the master's slow fade to black, why would any theater company want to stage Small Craft Warnings? Perhaps because they have an Elise Stone among them and need to let her rip. Stone, now in her 17th season with the Jean Cocteau Rep, grabs hold of Leona and performs the shit out of this monster role. She acts as if it were her last night on stage, as if her whole career had led up to this incredible burst of bravado. Using every inch of her body, with her sexuality wired up as if for a last, deadly tango, Stone is a force of nature in this role, and her delivery of the lines is letter perfect. Is there an OBIE in her future?

Again, nothing much happens in Small Craft Warnings, and lines like "I wish my heart could vent the memories of a lifetime" are not Williams' best. But in the capable hands of a terrific cast, nobly directed by Scott Shattuck, this production should make Tennessee smile from The Beyond.

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