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Vieux Carré

Tennessee Williams' rarely-produced autobiographical work receives a well-acted production from the Pearl Theatre Company. logo
Sean McNall, Rachel Botchan, and Joseph Collins
in Vieux Carré
(© Gregory Costanzo)
Of Tennessee Williams' later works, perhaps none is as obscure as the autobiographical Vieux Carré, now being offered by Pearl Theatre Company in a well-acted production; the play had a short-lived Broadway run in 1977 and its last major New York appearance was in 1983. But while the play's rarity will be the chief reason for many to see this production, there's nothing rare about the writing. This atmospheric sketch of a New Orleans boarding house is full of haunting images, sad truths, and flinty one-liners.

Unfortunately, while Vieux Carré certainly feels like Tennessee Williams, it just doesn't feel like a play. In his other works, Williams builds intricate drama amidst decaying Southern atmosphere; but Vieux Carré is simply all atmosphere. The evening is essentially a series of short stories linked by location and an all-but invisible narrator.

Before the world discovered him or he discovered himself, Williams spent some time in the Vieux Carré area of New Orleans (aka The French Quarter). It's striking that while living in one of the world's most exciting cities, Williams was fascinated not by the glitz or even its seedy underbelly, but by those who couldn't keep pace with either. For Williams, this was time well-spent gathering "human material" -- or at least that's how his main character puts it, an authorial stand-in that the script calls only The Writer (the excellent Sean McNall), who watches, writes, and never gets all that involved.

Only in the Writer's dealings with Nightingale (George Morfogen in a masterful performance), an older, gay artist is there anything of visceral interest. Nightingale claims he has the cold, flu, asthma -- anything but the tuberculosis clearly killing him -- yet despite his denial, he's more attuned to the way the world works than anyone else on stage. He's a transfixing mass of contradictions: cruel and kind, smart and stupid, sexual predator and kindly tour guide. Williams almost never wrote explicitly about homosexuality, but in moving away from coded references and unspoken dread of his earlier works, he crafted interactions that show the flickerings of awakening and the exchange of knowledge.

The rest of the play is color: the nosy battle-axe of a landlady (Carol Schultz); her mouthy Negro maid (Claudia Robinson); a pair of dumpster-diving old ladies (Beth Dixon and Pamela Payton-Wright); a musician on the lam (Christian Pedersen); and a New York lady (Rachel Botchan) who has taken up with a loutish brute (Joseph Collins). Williams is particularly fascinated by this last pairing, which is sadly the least interesting. What reads on the page as cliché plays here as even less, since Collins lacks the sexual gravity necessary to pull a woman like Botchan into his orbit.

Beyond eliciting the mostly admirable acting, director Austin Pendleton hasn't done the production many favors. Working with set designer Harry Feiner (and with the theater's limited vertical height), the action is largely set on or about a center stage bed forced into yeoman's duty (now it's The Writer's room, now the hallway, now the young lovers', and so on). The unfortunate effect is the feeling that the action revolves around The Writer, rather than that he rattles around the outskirts, watching and wanting. As a result, we're made all the more aware of the lack of central drama in the play.

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