In Masks Outrageous and Austere

by Tennessee Williams
Directed by David Schweizer
Featuring Shirley Knight
Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Street
April 16, 2012 — May 26, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 15, 2012

Shirley Knight. Image by Sara Krulwich.

Late life Tennessee Williams plays flummox me as an audience member.  Oh, I understand the themes: faded beauties and pretty boys and sordid nefarious underworld edginess and illness and grace under pressure. We honor the man and the talent and all the resonant excellence of [insert name of any Williams play]‘s faded elegance and grace under pressure and sordid whatever. We welcome, dramaturgically and culturally, any scraps or hints of other gems from the fertile and increasingly nonlinear creative mind of Tennessee. His centennial this past year of the playwright’s birth (1911-1983) has been the occasion for me to see, in several cities, a selection of works, from the rarely produced (e.g. Vieux Carré and The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore) to the frequently produced (e.g. The Glass Menagerie) to the never-before produced (e.g. One Arm, adapted by Moisés Kaufman from a draft film script, and The Pretty Trap, a draft version of what become The Glass Menagerie). And in those later creations, including pieces the playwright himself never deemed completed during his lifetime, we can experience what may have been Williams’ own fragmented reality and perhaps paranoia.  And my own conclusion is that these reclaimed archival pieces — such as One  Arm and The Pretty Trap and In Masks Outrageous and Austere — may best be presented and appreciated in the context of a festival of Williams’ works in which experts, actors, discussants can analyze and contextualize these works as they now need to be. These later works do not successfully stand alone. In the context of his other work, and in the context other works from other eras, there are gems to be gleaned. In In Masks Outrageous and Austere we have shards of performances, of moments, of characters, and a bit of a pretty mess.

Rich and be-kaftaned widow Babe (the game Shirley Knight), her mysteriously ailing and homosexual husband Billy (Robert Beitzel), his boyfriend Jerry (Sam Underwood) come out of a drug or drink induced haze at a seaside encampment at the beginning of the play and spend the play attempting to figure out where they are. A maid Peg (Pamela Shaw), her hulky blue collar boyfriend Joey (Christopher Halladay), multiple men in black dressed as Secret Service men, all named Gideon, patrol the perimeter and manage their charges.  A top-hatted and Balenciaga-adorned neighbor (the lovely Alison Fraser) wanders with her young son Playboy (Connor Buckley) on a leash like a performing monkey and eating gum drops while we hear of hints of his sexual abuse at the hands of a neighbor, bringing a level of skeeviness to the proceedings. Video appearances are made by a lawyer/colleague Kennelsworth (Buck Henry) and Babe’s Dr. Syme (Austin Pendleton). And have I mentioned the dwarf?

I found myself thinking of other dramatic adventures that deal with confusion and mysterious powers.  Patrick McGoohan‘s turn as The Prisoner for a single late 1960s television season, in which a secret agent is abducted, taken to a village resort that turns out to be a prison.  Twin Peaks in its single 1990-91 television season (at least for the first half of the series before everything got really silly) created a haunting arc with dancing midgets and another mysterious hard-drinking kind of scattered Doctor  — Dr. Jacoby.  The noir genre could provide hints to what Williams is attempting, but we have merely plot shards here.

Production values shine (set by James Noone, lighting by Alexander V. Nichols, music and sound by Dan Moses Schreier, videos and projections by Darrel Maloney), yet add a 21st century gloss to what purports to be a story set in 1983.

Truly, the value of this piece seems to be in direct and immediate communication with other Williams works.  Discussants on a panel after a reading; scenic comparisons across the arc of Williams’ career. As a single work, especially one so highly almost over produced, this piece does not stand.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 17, 2012)

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