Tennessee Williams in the French Quarter. Robert Kent reviews.
Williams' last play on Broadway in his lifetime, Vieux Carré focuses on the disparate inhabitants of a single building in New Orleans' colorful French Quarter--722 Toulouse Street. The dark, poetic story connects the lost lives of several boarding house tenants: a desperately lonely painter, a sexually confused writer, a pair of old ladies who scour garbage bins for leftovers, a strip-show gigolo, a displaced fashion designer with an unnamed disease, and an overworked housekeeper.
Highly autobiographical, Vieux Carré is Williams' literary precursor to VH-1's Behind the Music. "I don't allow no trashy behavior!" insists Mrs.Wire (Courtenay Wendell), the building's senile proprietor. Naturally, the rooms of this boarding house are filled with more "trashy behavior" than an episode of Knots Landing. Each scene features some combination of gross indecencies, drugs, alcohol, fornication, prostitution, rape, and homosexuality.
Set in 1938, the script frequently identifies the characters by their scandalous addictions rather than their personalities. Director Dennis Smith does a remarkable job at bridging the playwright's worlds of fiction and reality. Likewise, the polished cast, nicely led by Moe Bertan as The Writer, succeeds at discovering the three-dimensional characters hiding within Williams' overly descriptive prose.
None of the residents of 722 Toulouse is there by choice. "A sudden change of circumstance removed me from what I thought was myself," cries the young fashion designer (Erica Veit in a concise performance) as she attempts to explain how she ended up in the boarding house with an abusive, alcoholic lover (strongly played by Ivan Davila).
The show's most stereotypical role is Mr. Nightingale, a gay painter "frantic with loneliness" and dying from tuberculosis. Tony Hamilton does an admirable job of overcoming Williams' determination to expose the character as a male version of Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire. DuBois' infamous line, "I've always relied on the kindness of strangers," is not too far removed from Nightingale's own mantra, "A single man needs a visitor at night. Love can happen that way--one night only."
The Fourth Unity's Vieux Carré does well portraying New Orleans' constant soundtrack of noisy drunks and street musicians. It also successfully captures the loneliness and desperation of Williams' writing without emphasizing its melodrama. The production fails, however, in its re-creation of the city's vibrantly colored, wainscotted interiors. Set designer Natalya Vidokle highlights the play's oppressive subject matter by placing the actors within drab, gray rooms. A glance through any issue of Southern Living would have helped the designer discover a palette of more appropriate shades and design options.
Having lived in New Orleans myself, I know that the Quarter is not the same place once inhabited by Williams. No one speaks in his grand, metaphorical style. Who would ever say, "Having pride is like mistaking a bus for a bluebird"? Many of the city's fragrant azaleas now bloom next to Virgin Megastores, an MTA bus replaces the streetcar named Desire, and 722 Toulouse Street is most likely a gift shop that sells voodoo dolls dressed in "I love N'awlins" T-shirts.
Despite the changes, the Quarter remains filled with the smell of boiled seafood, the ever-present sound of jazz, and a sultry air of mystery. Louisiana's tourist destination continues to create vivid pictures as the city clings to its history and the residents stir another pot of gumbo. Occasionally, Williams' rich images of life in New Orleans can still be found lingering in the Quarter and--thanks to the Fourth Unity's ardent, "artistic" production of Vieux Carré--within the walls of the Bank Street Theatre.