'Warnings': A Loaded Message
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 20, 2009
How would you like to spend the evening with a bunch of sloppy drunks? That's the challenge posed by the Washington Shakespeare Company's revival of Tennessee Williams's "Small Craft Warnings," a maudlin drama in which down-on-their-luck, deeply sloshed characters go on crying jags and speechifying binges.
The fact that it's Williams, and that the production has the wit to set the play in a working saloon (the neatly converted lobby of the Clark Street Playhouse), gives the event a paradoxically highbrow B-movie ambiance, with a touch of sideshow. At intermission, you can step right into the atmosphere, bellying up to the same bar that the actors loll and grouse upon. You can even be served by Monk -- or at least by actor John C. Bailey, thoroughly in character (and appealingly underplaying it) as the joint's tough but sensitive proprietor.
Monk is virtually a patron saint for the drifters and losers who slink through his Pacific seaside tavern. The low-key barkeep tries to keep his regulars in line, especially a rowdy beautician named Leona who enters at gale force as a real loudmouth brawler. Williams has such a keen eye for the grim ways by which people survive or self-destruct, though, that there isn't really a ton of hope. These people leave Monk's no better than when they came in.
Williams's observational powers are often coupled with a purple pen, and the soliloquy-heavy play is a tough nut to crack. The actors are given long, self-confessional arias to deliver, and director Jay Hardee sets an awfully good mood for this, sometimes letting the performers wind through the cafe tables where the audience sits. The lighting is low, and the air is thick with cigarette smoke -- it's the right kind of interior weather for boozy monologues.
But while Hardee shows a subtle flair for vignettes -- the anonymous gay encounter that quickly turns brutal, or a memory illustrated by a shaft of light that falls on a man reminding Leona of her dead gay brother -- the acting itself rarely unleashes the somber music of this early 1970s Williams drama. Performances tend to be overdone; Kari Ginsburg doesn't uncover much nuance to Leona's raucousness, and as a waif who tries to trade lewd favors for food and lodging, Mundy Spears cowers and quivers like a figure from an expressionist horror film. It doesn't help that when Ginsburg tries to deliver a lyrical passage, Spears pantomimes the dry heaves; the show hasn't entirely gauged when to make the low life step aside for the high poetry.
Joe Palka brings a nice dose of self-awareness to his portrait of a discredited doctor, though, and so does Christopher Henley as a weary, middle-aged cruiser named Quentin. Because this is Williams, and because the production is so thick with mood (even the bathrooms have the appropriately seedy decor), it keeps finding ways to draw you in.
It's like staying up late with a bad old black-and-white movie -- the fascination, while real, is mainly morbid. In its way, of course, it's just what Williams intended.
Small Craft Warnings, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Jay Hardee. Set, Karen Sugrue and Hardee; lighting, Jason Cowperthwaite; costumes, Jennifer Tardiff; sound, David Crandall. With Brian Crane, James Finley, Erin Kaufman, Michael Sandoval and Thomas Wood. About two hours.