The best comedy in town right now may be a 1966 Tennessee Williams one-act that originally closed on Broadway in less than a week. It’s called “The Gnadiges Fraulein” and it’s so riotously preposterous, mean-spirited and stuffed with florid language that you’d think it was a Christopher Durang parody of Williams.
But no, this delirium — low blows being performed with high style by the Washington Shakespeare Company — is the great Tenn himself, in what seems like a very catty mood.
“It was I who invented American black comedy,” Williams wrote in his shrewish 1975 memoir. He was hissing back at critics who slashed “The Gnadiges Fraulein” and “The Mutilated,” the double bill that made up his short-lived “Slapstick Tragedy.” Williams’s claim is a little rash, but “Gnadiges” — a Key West farce about a gossip columnist named Polly, a landlady named Molly and the fraulein, a beleaguered artiste who catches fish in her jaws — is a hoot.
It’s also the better part of a savvy evening that begins with Williams’s 1940 “Portrait of a Madonna.” The short drama looks familiar: In a cramped, dirty apartment, an aging Southern belle haunted by nagging romantic memories loses her grip on reality. Medics — kind strangers — eventually escort her away. The piece is plainly an early draft of Blanche DuBois (Jessica Tandy played this role before she starred in “A Streetcar Named Desire”), and Annetta Dexter Sawyer fearlessly throws herself into the character’s lyrical speeches about Southern manners and dashed dreams.
The musical underscoring of Lynn Sharp Spears’s moody “Madonna” staging is recycled during Jay Hardee’s blissfully freewheeling “Gnadiges,” which shrewdly nudges a melancholy motif into the show (billed as “Tennessee Continuum: Two One-Act Plays by Tennessee Williams”). The plucky fraulein — one-eyed and bloodied thanks to perpetual battles over fish with the human-size Cocaloony bird — and the doomed madonna could have themselves a pretty deep heart-to-heart some day.
It says a lot about the precision of the evening that “Gnadiges” hits its dark target effortlessly at the end of an hour-plus of calibrated mayhem. As Polly and Molly, Mundy Spears and Emily Webbe swagger and carp hilariously, finding the zing in each punch-drunk Williams barb and windy verbal excursion. Spears’s Polly is a tottering blonde gossip who opportunistically switches back and forth between syrupy and vicious, while Webbe’s Molly is tough as nails whether she’s cleaning up a puddle of blood or rocking with bizarre erotic fervor on her rooming-house front porch.
And such human (sort of) spectacle! Karin Abromaitis, in a fuzzy-feathery getup, swoops and stalks as the wordless Cocaloony; James Finley plays a nearly naked, big, blond Indian; and Karin Rosnizeck, a lean figure in an orange fright wig, is absurd and pitiable as the fraulein, a washed-up one-trick pony.
“Tennessee Continuum” is now running in repertory at Artisphere’s 125-seat black box stage with the WSC’s smart production of Tom Stoppard’s newspaper drama “Night and Day.” It’s a happy, thoughtful mash-up, and the consistently assured verbal and physical performances make “Gnadiges” a particular delight.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
Directed by Lynn Sharp Spears and Jay Hardee. Scenic design, Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden; lights, Colin Dieck; costumes, Susie Graham (“Portrait of a Madonna”) and Jennifer Tardiff (“The Gnadiges Fraulein”); sound design, David Crandall. With Slice Hicks, Bob Sheire, Christopher Henley, and Kim Curtis. About two hours. Through July 3 at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Call 888-841-2787 or visit tickets.artisphere.com.