Editors' pick

Five by Tenn

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Editorial Review

'Five' Appetizers From A Master's Typewriter
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 24, 2004; Page C01

He goes by the name of Candy. He glides onto the stage of the Terrace Theater, fawning over the rough trade he's managed to sweet-talk into his apartment, an atmospheric New Orleans flat stocked with Pernod and bourbon and adorned with pillows in the shape of Japanese fans. You can all but smell the portent.

Candy is fluttery, vulnerable, Southern, a ready-made mark for a brute like Karl -- and another fragile magnolia blossom from the ornately scented garden of Tennessee Williams. That Candy, played by the talented Cameron Folmar, is just now making his first appearance on any stage only adds to the air of a rarefied occasion in the overtly gay "And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens," the most intriguing of the quintet of Williams one-acts -- four of them world premieres -- being unveiled at the Kennedy Center.

The playlets, grouped under the title "Five by Tenn," are the opening offering of the center's four-month festival "Tennessee Williams Explored," and like an assortment of inviting appetizers, they emit delicate aromas suggesting potential banquets yet to come: new productions of "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "The Glass Menagerie" that will fill out the festival's card between now and August.

Directed by Michael Kahn -- head of the Shakespeare Theatre, with which the Kennedy Center has teamed for this production -- "Five by Tenn" provides tantalizing glimpses of Williams's restless artistry, a look in miniature at the fancies, fears and predilections of a great poetic dramatist. Composed at various stages of his life and retrieved from archives and other sources, the plays reflect the variety of tones, moods and styles in which he wrote and ruminated. From the neuroses of the domineering, soignee mother in "Escape" to the desolate attempts by the nameless man and woman just to hold on in "I Can't Imagine Tomorrow," the one-acts vibrate at distinct emotional wavelengths, and yet all unmistakably come from the typewriter of one man.

They are not uniformly compelling: The shortest and weakest, "The Municipal Abattoir," feels like rather conventional agitprop, surprising only because Williams wrote it, a fable about how apathy and conformity play into the hands of fascism. Piquant characters enliven "These Are the Stairs You Got to Watch," a juicy slice-of-life set in a 1940s movie house where sin is always lurking just off-screen. Still, it's a particularly fragmentary slice and of interest mostly on academic grounds.

Even the least of these plays is worth a visit, but what "Five by Tenn" could do without is the intrusive, literal presence of Williams himself. In the guise of actor Jeremy Lawrence -- who looks quite a bit like a gaunt version of Williams in middle age -- the writer greets us at the start of the evening. Lawrence's Williams offers his services as a kind of Southern-fried Russell Baker, holding court over a mini-"Masterpiece Theatre," spouting observations drawn from Williams's 1975 autobiography and from his stage directions for the plays.

It is not Lawrence's fault that the bridging device is stiff and artificial and unnecessarily elongates an already lengthy production: "Five by Tenn" runs a full three hours. (The one-acts themselves, it should be noted, never overstay their welcome.) One could argue that the autobiographical excerpts apply some useful embroidery, but there's no case to be made for a narrator who points out the staircases, tables and windows as if he were a real estate agent at an open house.

The transitions are maddening, given the loving, masterly handling Kahn gives the plays. He's assembled a crackerjack cast with intuitive eyes and ears for the material; the characters are approached with the gentle fortitude they require. Folmar, a Juilliard graduate, is one of Kahn's finds, superb as Candy and nearly as memorable as the sensitive son driven to a sacrificial act in "Escape." Myk Watford evinces exactly the right strain of minor league magnetism for Karl, the macho closet case of "And Tell Sad Stories," in whom you detect traces of the immortal Stanley Kowalski.

Joan van Ark turns the fussy gargoyle of a mother in "Escape" into a formidable basket case. And Kathleen Chalfant and Thomas Jay Ryan apply meaningful layers of urgency and poignancy to the abstracted intimations of depression and loneliness in "I Can't Imagine Tomorrow," the sole offering to have been performed before.

The evening progresses from the naturalism of pieces like "These Are the Stairs" and "Escape" to a look at more experimental works like "Abattoir" and, better, "I Can't Imagine Tomorrow." The nature of the relationship between the characters in the latter, identified only as One (Chalfant) and Two (Ryan), remains somewhat vague, but there are hints of the guilt and sadness and psychic intertwining that characterized Williams's feelings for his mentally ill sister, Rose. Chalfant and Ryan find unexpected depth in these groping souls; the play provides the evening's moving coda.

With its impeccably detailed central character, "And Tell Sad Stories" emerges as the evening's most absorbing piece. It is in essence a character study, a portrait of a young man so desperate for the arms of a masculine lover that he ignores everything but the packaging, no matter how ill-suited the stranger might be. On the page it seems a bit sentimental, but in Kahn's revealing staging it plays as comedy. Folmar and Watford are wonderfully matched, and Watford pulls off the difficult trick of making this reluctant gentleman caller more than the traditional heavy.

Packaging, it turns out, is what Candy's all about. Midway through the play, he makes a radical costume change, returning as a would-be femme fatale. Though Williams famously threw cold water on the speculation by some that "Streetcar's" Blanche DuBois could in fact be a drag queen, the easily hurt Candy appears to be very much modeled on (or a prototype for) Blanche. "And Tell Sad Stories," though, has none of the tragic ambition of "Streetcar," and Candy is a more resilient character than Blanche. And yet he is also a Williams original, a sprite brought to life by Folmar as a man hungering for casualness and carelessness but advised by the world to watch his every step.

The steps Williams takes in "Five by Tenn" may be incremental, but virtually every one of them advances your understanding of the writer and his art.

Five by Tenn, an evening of one-act plays by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Michael Kahn. Sets, Andrew Jackness; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Howell Binkley; composer, Adam Wernick; sound, Martin Desjardins. With Hunter Gilmore, Carrie Specksgoor, Brian McMonagle, Janet Patton, John Joseph Gallagher, Edward Boroevich, Joshua Drew. Approximately three hours. Through May 9 at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.