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The Hanging of Razor Brown

Le Wilhelm's socially conscious Southern drama plays like imitation Tennessee Williams. logo
Erin Singleton, Jaclyn Sokol, and Lynn Osborn
in The Hanging of Razor Brown
(© Kymm Zuckert)
It's no news that ground-breaking playwrights trigger imitators. Tennessee Williams spawned his share, with William Inge being the most prominent. Still, you might not expect another Williams wannabe to raise his quasi-poetic, deeply South'n voice at this late date, but Le Wilhelm has in The Hanging of Razor Brown, the first of two of the author's works to be presented this month at 59 E 59.

With a few minor adjustments, the play could serve as a rib-tickling Williams parody; but that's far from Wilhelm's intention. As things stand, this attempt at infusing the master's tropes with a splash more social consciousness remains too derivative to be taken seriously for very long.

Madame Genevieve LeCompte (Tracy Newirth), who seems to have acquired her airs and graces at Blanche Du Bois' ever-so-dainty knee and Alma Winemiller's awkward elbow, has brought three young charges, Delilah, Regina, and Cordelia (Jaclyn Sokol, Lynn Osborn, Erin Singleton) to the Devereaux cemetery plot overlooking the Paradise Bend, Florida hanging grounds. They're joined by young and cute adolescent, Reginald Courtland (John Mervini), who has a teenage crush on Cordelia and hopes to win her by prevailing in a watermelon-seed spitting contest that they eventually hold.

Others skulking around under scenic designer Lex Liang's notion of crepe myrtle (death, crepe -- get it) are Matthew Devereaux (Jon Oak), unflaggingly randy but suffering a male condition that's doing him in, and Robert Price (Nick Giello), a veteran of the Great War who sees through Genevieve's pose the way Stanley Kowalski saw through Blanche's and is determined to take her down a peg in the same manner.

The pack of reprobates and innocents are congregating to watch Razor Brown's terminal punishment for the supposed theft of a pony, although each of them comes to realize the condemned man had nothing to do with the crime. Razor's wife, Clara (Anastasia Morsucci), arrives to plead for them to help her talk to the white officials about a witness who can exonerate her spouse; and Robert -- whose eye for Genevieve is partially offset by his fist for justice -- tries to intercede on Clara's behalf. Eventually, the girls do, too, despite Genevieve's beliefs that they'll make no difference. The outcome isn't in much doubt, even though at one point, Genevieve insists, "There is decency in life."

Part of the explanation for the ending not being a huge question mark has to do with the same attitude towards truth and illusion --and the uncertain positive benefits of the latter -- that Williams explores more movingly in his work. Clara's presence in the play introduces a dignified chord, but it's too late. Wilhelm is already too far gone at his warming-over exercise. Patrons are already immersed in thinking, "Aha, he got that from Streetcar and that from Sweet Bird and that from..."

Guided by Merry Beamer, the cast faces a real challenge to make Wilhelm's indulgence work without resorting to comic exaggeration. They need to play it for pathos and, in the case of whippersnapper Reginald, with gentle humor. As the likable lad, Mervini is extremely likable. Meanwhile, Giello spreads the menace effectively as Robert, and Morsucci is a touching Clara. As for the rest, they're adequate, but a couple of them too resolutely pile on the tired Williams vocal conventions. (Two casts -- differing in five of the roles -- do the play. I saw Cast A.)

Incidentally, Wilhelm's stage directions say of Matthew Devereaux, "There is an odor of putrescence about him -- a smell of urine mixed with cheap French perfume." Fortunately this is a metaphorical aroma that director Beamer doesn't go for literally. It's meant to broadcast the demise of the old South, but Wilhelm's play is old in quite a different aspect.

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