“The Two-Character Play” is a modest title for Tennessee Williams’s 1975 psychodrama about a brother and sister locked in mortal combat with familiar Williams demons: debilitating fear, sordid family history, a pills-and-liquor habit and flamboyant theatrics. Williams called the work “Out Cry” during an initial version in 1967, and that was more accurate. The characters here certainly do cry out.
But they act out, too. They are actors, these two, on a tour that seems to be petering out in the middle of nowhere. So they hit the stage and try to act their parts in a nameless, shabby theater, but the play-within-the play is often overwhelmed by the fact that Felice often forgets his lines and Clare swans around and makes things up — or, worse, remembers who and where they really are.
It’s hard to say what has sparked the sudden surge of interest in “The Two-Character Play,” but it was done a couple of seasons ago in London and just closed off-Broadway in New York (both staged by director Gene David Kirk), and now is getting a solid production here by Spooky Action Theater. The company’s wide church basement on 16th Street NW nicely accommodates the ramshackle environment that Williams called for, one that surrounds a recognizable stage with a bizarre dream version of a junky backstage area that includes a seated papier-mache giant gazing on from one side.
There is a kind of grubby grandiosity to the set, and designer JD Madsen suggests deep pockets of emptiness through unfinished walls at the back and on the sides. This gives actors David Bryan Jackson and Lee Mikeska Gardner lots of space to fill (and to dread) as the characters rattle through conflicts that all seem rehearsed, one way or another.
Gardner has the diva role: Her Clare enters in a fur and tiara, making demands of Jackson’s steadier Felice and generally proving to be a handful. Clare is a grande dame sans game plan, boozily barging around and expecting Felice to keep things organized. Gardner could make a scenery-chewing banquet of the part, but she keeps the showiness in check. It’s always clear what Clare’s up to, whether it’s needling Felice or cynically entertaining herself. (Worth noting: Gardner and Jackson were once a couple.)
Jackson’s very good as Felice tries to handle the emotional leash, giving Gardner’s Clare some slack, then yanking her back. If Felice is the sturdy partner in Act 1, that reverses after intermission, when the “performance” breaks down and family tragedy comes clawing back at these siblings.
With all its poetic introspection and the heavy downward psychological spiral of the action, it’s hard not to make the play sound turgid. So, it’s important to note that Gardner and Jackson are quick, as light as possible, and often funny with the material, and that director Richard Henrich succeeds in giving this difficult play a good clean shot with the audience. Both things are true: The gamesmanship of these doomed creatures gets a little fatiguing in the second act, yet particularly for Williams buffs, this assured revival of a little-seen work will be worth it.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Richard Henrich. Lights, Brian S. Allard; sound design, David Crandall; costumes, Kimberly Parkman. About one hour and 45 minutes. Through Oct. 27 at Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW. Tickets: $25-$35. Call 202-248-0301 or visit www.spookyaction.org.