"The Gnadiges Fraulein" is not one of Tennessee Williams' more successful plays, but it is certainly revelatory of the agitation in his soul in the mid-1960s. Having delivered his major plays by then, Williams was desperately struggling for artistic renewal, and his efforts led him into a grotesque fantasy world, characterized by shrill laughter and fervid poetry.
As the second half of "Slapstick Tragedy," a double bill lambasted by the Broadway critics in 1966, "The Gna diges Fra ulein" (German for "gracious lady") came and went in a week. Still, its excesses command some attention and the local theater company called Dragon is not misguided in wanting to revive the work. Unfortunately, Dragon's production, currently housed in the Dumbarton Methodist Church, is so slipshod that the revival seems utterly without point or purpose.
The title character is a former soubrette who performed with trained seals on the stages of Europe, but has since been reduced to the status of a derelict. Her once glorious singing is now a mere memory; her ears have become calcified; and her vision, we are told, is 0/0. To earn her keep in The Big Dormitory, a flophouse on the southernmost tip of the United States, she is obliged to compete with the fierce cocalooney birds for fish thrown from the boats in the harbor.
The flophouse is run by a garrulous termagant named Molly, who for much of the play smokes pot, rocks on her front porch and keeps up a salty conversation with Polly, a society reporter who has come looking for a story. The sordid and ludicrous story that eventually emerges is that of the gna diges Fra ulein. If it bears some resemblance to the saga of Blanche Dubois, as rewritten, say, by Eugene Ionesco, Williams clearly meant it to be symbolic of the plight of the artist, and quite possibly of his own reduced creative straits.
Dragon's production, directed by Marilyn Kray, does nothing to organize the colorful chaos. The set is little more than litter cast on the church floor, and the actors' voices, pitched high, are continually mocked by an echo in the hall, so that fully a third of the text is incomprehensible. The litter gets kicked around a lot; so does the cast. And the cocalooney, presumably a terrifyingly monstrous bird, is costumed rather like a gnome and played, for no apparent reason, as a Bowery wino.
"The Gna diges Fra ulein" should put one in mind of an exotic hothouse, filled with tangled vegetation and absurd flowers. As staged by Dragon, it is an abandoned lot.
THE GNADIGES FRAULEIN, by Tennessee Williams; directed by Marilyn Kray; technical direction, Shaun Miskell. With Kim Merrill, Laurel Allen, Dean Morin, Patti Howard, Marilyn Kray.
At the Dumbarton Methodist Church Thursdays through Saturdays until Sept. 26.