Tennessee Williams

A Hot Cat in Connecticut

Review of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Music Theatre of Connecticut

What makes a play great? That it explores human complexity with characters that generations of actors can lose themselves in and find compelling truths. That its setting and style, in being specific to a time and place, manage to incorporate a wider sense of human possibility. The people in the drama are caught where and when they are, but they speak to us, across time and distance, with a directness and a passion for life that will always be meaningful.

In every sense, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a great play. And Music Theatre of Connecticut, in a production directed by Kevin Connors, has done it proud. And that means playgoers have the unusual treat of seeing a powerful and professional production of this masterpiece in an intimate space that makes us aware of how voyeuristic our attention can be. All the action takes place in a young married couple’s bedroom, with the audience flanking it on three sides, as if spies watching the struggle at the heart of this fractious and uneasy family drama.

Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone), seated, Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah), Reverend Tooker (Jim Schilling), Doc Baugh (Jeff Gurner), Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green), Gooper (Robert Morley), Mae (Elizabeth Donnelly) in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone), seated, Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah), Reverend Tooker (Jim Schilling), Doc Baugh (Jeff Gurner), Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green), Gooper (Robert Morley), Mae (Elizabeth Donnelly) in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

The Pollitts—Big Daddy and Big Mama—are well-to-do landowners in the south who came from nothing. Big Daddy scraped his way to a position of power and wealth, but his health is at issue. The family—the Pollitts’ two sons, Gooper and Brick, with their wives Mae and Maggie, and a slew of Gooper and Mae’s offspring—have gathered to celebrate Big Daddy’s 65th birthday. The news from the clinic is good. Big Daddy doesn’t have cancer, merely a spastic colon. That’s the situation, seemingly, as the play opens, and it’s clear that all is not well right from the start.

Brick was a sports hero, now he drinks relentlessly and has broken his leg in a drunken attempt to jump hurdles as he once could. His wife just as relentlessly belittles Gooper and Mae and schemes at how to make sure that she and Brick are not cut out of the old man’s will. At the base of their marital dysfunction is an act of infidelity and the nature of the affection between Brick and his best sports buddy, Skipper. And then there’s the fact that everybody but Daddy and Mama Pollitt know that, in truth, the news is cancer and the cancer is terminal.

Brick (Michael Raver), Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green)

Brick (Michael Raver), Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green)

How the characters cope with a hopeless situation and each other is intrinsic to this drama. There is humor because Williams had a wonderful ear for the locutions of southern speech, both in its willful gentility and in its pointed lapses. His characters can lash out with language and can also avoid speech with particular emphasis. By the end, we find surprising turns in some of the characters and, at the play’s heart, a coming to terms with grim truth on the part of Big Daddy and Brick.

Here, director Connors makes the tense and difficult scene between these two men achieve a cathartic climax, abetted by his two fully engaging actors whose control of the material is impressive and convincing. Frank Mastrone’s Big Daddy isn’t simply an egotistical bully—though he is one—but also a man of the world with an almost fatal attachment to his beautiful son, Brick. He lets us hear the fondness, feel the ache, and see the man take the bullet of the last straw. It’s riveting.

Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone), Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah)

Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone), Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah)

And Michael Raver’s Brick deepens and deepens as the play goes on. He begins the play sullen, in a towel, a hedonist trying to withdraw from the world into his own private pleasure palace. His showdown with Big Daddy occurs almost despite himself, driven by the booze he needs so desperately. Late in the play, he nearly steps out of his senses, playing as if a whirlwind of suppressed emotion makes him, finally, one of the “weak, beautiful people” who fall under the sway of the Maggies of this world, an outcome that feels enheartening.

Brick (Michael Raver)

Brick (Michael Raver)

And what of Maggie? It’s a tough role because Maggie can so easily become a caricature of feminine wiles wedded to a desperate resentment, but she’s so much more, and Andrea Lynn Green makes her a memorable mix of sex appeal and sly charm, with a refreshing girlishness that suits her steady awe of her husband, in spite of—or even because of—all his failings. Connors’ blocking always puts Green where she can do the scene most good.

Maggie the Cat (Andrea Lynn Green)

Maggie the Cat (Andrea Lynn Green)

As the put-upon and unprepossessing Gooper and Mae, Robert Morley and Elizabeth Donnelly do the parts full justice. Again, caricature can be too easily achieved, but Williams clearly wants us to see that the griefs of this grasping and manipulative couple are real. Morley gives us the pathos of Gooper—never favored, never preferred, but trying to live up to his life’s challenge. Donnelly’s Mae is snitty, and, when she believes she has the upper hand, insufferable as she should be. Excellent support is also provided by Jeff Gurner as Doc Baugh, a professional man who tends to look on in constrained silence, and by the entertaining turn of Jim Schilling as Preacher Tooker, a pious conniver delivered with great comic relish.

Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah)

Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah)

Finally, there’s Cynthia Hannah as Big Mama, nearly upstaging Big Daddy. As a role that requires both silliness and heartbreaking pathos, it’s in some ways the more complex role. She rises to the great threat posed by Gooper and Mae with a commanding strength, but her most affecting moment is carrying a cake with lighted candles offstage, pathetic and chastened. Williams’ grasp of the ugliness of marital strife is deep and abiding but he always leavens the bitterness with flashes of affection and the sudden recognition of dependence and sympathy that keeps us fascinated, waiting for the next illumination.

Luminous, bracing, sexy, and satisfying, this Cat stays on that Hot Roof just as long as it can.

 

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Kevin Connors

Scenic Design & Technical Direction: Kelly Burr Nelson; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Will Atkin; Stage Managed by Gary Betsworth

Cast: Elizabeth Donnelly, Andrea Lynn Green, Jeff Gurner, Cynthia Hannah, Frank Mastrone, Robert Mobley, Michael Raver, Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut
November 2-17, 2018

God Save the Queens

Review of And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens at Yale Cabaret

First-year Yale School of Drama director Rory Pelsue and first-year actor Patrick Madden offer stunning Yale Cabaret debuts with Tennessee Williams’ one act And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens, a title that riffs off Shakespeare’s Richard II and, by the time it shows up as a line in the play, attempts to add levity. Which is worth noting because, though this is a sad story, it isn’t, finally, a tragedy.

Candy (Patrick Madden) is a drag queen when at home, but when we first meet her, in the midst of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, she is a he, playing host, in a rather “out” manner, to an ostensibly straight sailor, Karl (Jamie Bogyo), who seems ill-at-ease with the implications of fraternizing with Candy, even as he seems transfixed by his host’s charm and charisma.

Jamie Bogyo (Karl), Patrick Madden (Candy)

Jamie Bogyo (Karl), Patrick Madden (Candy)

Madden’s assured performance luxuriates in Candy’s fascination; something of a figment of her own fantasy, she is also very much a familiar figure from Williams’ subsequent plays. It’s long been my contention that Streetcar should be staged with a drag queen or transgendered actress as Blanche, and Candy in many ways anticipates such casting, making us see the drag queen at the heart of many of Williams’ female characters. Which is not to say that Williams or Madden or Pelsue are content with “female impersonation.” The subtlety of Candy’s demeanor is the point; it’s a performance of a character whose reality is an achieved performance.

Even when she gets ruthless with an apparently well-meaning gay couple who rent from her, Candy’s bitchiness indicates Williams knowing sense of how someone like Candy survives. Successful as an interior decorator, Candy—in a play written in 1957—is fully cognizant of the influence and fascination of queer culture for straight America, which, she says, would be “barbarian” without queens.

Patrick Madden (Candy)

Patrick Madden (Candy)

An indication of her taste is her apartment, which co-scenic designers Lucie Dawkins and Sarah Nietfeld drench in a florid Japonisme that lets us know at once that Candy identifies with aesthetes of the previous century, such as James McNeill Whistler. But the ersatz Japanese theme, c. 1950, would also be perfect for a boudoir intended to lure service-men, like Karl, whose sense of what “decadence” means would come from “the East.” Perhaps it should suffice to say that Japonisme in New Orleans’ French Quarter immediately characterizes Candy as decadence redux.

The question hovering over Candy’s passive-aggressive seduction of Karl is how much of a barbarian is he. And Williams—per usual—gets dramatic mileage out of the punishment that straight society seems all-too-glad to dole out to its “deviants.” Karl, in Bogyo’s nicely laconic performance, is a user and a bully who, occasionally—and Candy wants to believe in it as a saving grace—seems willing to play his role in Candy’s protracted fantasy. The audience looks on aghast, knowing this has to end badly. And Alvin (Steven Lee Johnson) and Jerry (Josh Wilder) from downstairs know so too. As a one-act, the foregone conclusion doesn’t hurt—we’re uncertain how bad it is going to get and can be relieved that things don’t get worse.

The anxiety we feel for Candy is very much the main take-away here, as her previous life with her “husband,” a sheltering “sponsor,” has made her too secure, financially, and too insecure, emotionally, to register fully the threat that lurks in manipulating someone like Karl. In our day, with a public more aware of the transgendered and of the fatalities, from violence and suicide, that indict straight culture, we might wonder what Williams’ play, had it been produced during the playwright’s very successful run of plays in the 1950s, might have done to create more awareness and understanding. Not much, probably, since the queer themes in Williams’ best-known plays tended to be minimized for mass consumption, such as in Hollywood movies. And that’s why seeing Candy on stage now is both timely and telling. Bravo!

 

And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Rory Pelsue

Dramaturg: Catherine María Rodriguez; Co-Scenic Designers: Lucie Dawkins, Sarah Nietfeld; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Frederick Kennedy; Scenic Charge: Dan Cogan; Stage Manager: Sarah Thompson; Co-Producers: Al Heartley, Rachel Shuey

Yale Cabaret
March 3-5, 2016

The Unforgiveable Thing

Without doubt, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is a great play. While some might choose The Glass Menagerie as the quintessential Williams play, I’ve always preferred the goings-on in Elysian Fields, giving us that fascinating threesome plus one of Stanley, Stella, Blanche, and Mitch. The play is so good in giving these characters interesting things to say and do that, we imagine, all a director and cast need do is get out of the way and let the thing work. Directed by Mark Rucker, the Yale Rep’s Streetcar aims for and mostly achieves the kind of definitive version admirers of the play would hope for.

Start with that set (Reid Thompson, Scenic Design): the size of the University Theater stage is put to good effect—particularly its height, with an upstairs we can see just below the overhanging curtain, so that there is a real feel for a two-room apartment below another one. It’s the classic proscenium with missing fourth wall, and it’s satisfying to see it used so well, with very fluid movements from one room to another and from outside to inside. The action is all blocked with an animated naturalism that moves at just the right pace. The play is long—with two intermissions that are required for dramatic curtains along the way—but never tiring. If you already know the play well, it’s still a great opportunity to study Williams’ ability to structure scenes and dialogue. Theater, film, television—rarely are scripts this good.

All the buzz in the media has focused on Joe Manganiello as Stanley. While I can’t claim any knowledge of Manganiello’s work as a werewolf, I feel certain his fans will get what they came for. In his very first scene he strips off his shirt to expose his ultra-buff bod—he’s so built, it’s almost a special effect—and in general he struts his stuff so as to give us a Stanley who is a bit more muscle-bound than might be common. The physical threat of Stanley is therefore palpably present, and so I found myself struck by how reserved this Stanley can be. I mean, he could really cause some damage, but is generally an easy-going guy. To a certain extent, Stanley—as written—received a disservice in the widespread view of Marlon Brando as the definitive performance of the role. Brando’s Stanley is far too fascinating, full of an intensity that goes well beyond the kind of guy Stanley is meant to be. Manganiello’s Stanley, to my mind, is closer to the “average Joe” qualities we should find in the master of 632 Elysian Fields.

In the demerits column, Manganiello’s performance at times left a bit to be desired in terms of elocution—the effort to give Stanley a certain tone and voice is appreciated, but at times the lines get a little swallowed, and there wasn’t quite as much comedy as there might be—as with the Napoleonic Code and the contents of Blanche’s trunk. But then comedy is hard, as they say.

The main emphasis in any production of Streetcar must fall on the role of Blanche. René Augesen takes on this exhausting role with amazing energy and a full sense of its many nuances. There aren’t any surprises in her performance, but there is a great feel for Blanche’s wit, and for the comic aspects of the play. Even knowing the outcome, we can watch the play with a sense that nothing that happens is a foregone conclusion. Even when the revelations about her past begin to surface, Blanche has the presence of mind to face them with style. Sure, she’s on a downward spiral after her last scene with Mitch, but it’s still the assault from Stanley that tips her over the edge. What I enjoyed most in Augesen’s performance is a sense of just how resilient and adaptable Blanche is. It’s a role full of the tragedy of indignity and Augesen gets it all across. And her costumes (Hunter Kaczorowski) are amazing—particularly the robe of Della Robbia blue in which she departs her sister’s home.

There’s fine support all along the way: April Matthis and Marc Damon Johnson, as Eunice and Steve Hubbell, the upstairs neighbors, have a proprietary sense of belonging that underscores the uniqueness of the DuBois sisters, and Adam O’Byrne’s Mitch meets the challenge of playing awkwardness gracefully. As the most “sensitive” of Stanley’s friends, Mitch might be just what Blanche needs—and Streetcar is perhaps at its best in showing that illusion can only go so far in masking the hard line of reality. The interplay of illusion and realism—as dramaturg Helen Jaksch’s playbill points out—is crucial to Williams’ sense of theater, and to see fond illusions crumple is both sad, inevitable, and dramatically satisfying, even if that means deliberate cruelty is the victor.

In the end, the female roles are what make this production—particularly the many nice comic touches in the sisterly rapport between Blanche and Sarah Sokolovic’s Stella. Sokolovic plays Stella as a realist who accepts the world she lives in without expecting more from it than it can provide; she’s a constant contrast to Blanche’s genteel volubility and fanciful conceptions, and Sokolovic lets her facial expressions in silent reactions say a lot. We have the sense of a woman who has been found wanting in Blanche’s view of things all their lives, and her solicitude for her sister is matched by her sense of Blanche’s pretensions. Some of the best scenes are the ones when the sisters are alone together.

One cavil: the moment when Stella, after her make-up session with Stanley, climbs out of bed nude in her sister’s presence. Nudity on stage is fine, but when it’s not specified in the text, we can wonder what purpose it serves. While it might be in character for Stella to be nude in front of her sister—which I doubt, given her sense of Blanche’s dignity—it seems to me completely out of character for Blanche not to say something. But she can’t say anything because Williams didn’t intend for her to be reacting to nudity.

It’s the one ill-chosen contemporary touch in this otherwise faithful, entertaining, and fascinating revival.

A Streetcar Named Desire By Tennessee Williams Directed by Mark Rucker

Scenic Designer: Reid Thompson; Costume Designer: Hunter Kaczorowski; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Composer and Sound Designer: Steven Brush; Production Dramaturg: Helen C. Jaksch; Dialect Coach: Jane Guyer Fujita; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle; Photographs: Carol Rosegg, courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre

Yale Repertory Theatre September 20-October 12, 2013

Odd Couple

Tennessee Williams’ In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is not one of his better-known plays and it’s easy to guess why. The situation of its leads—he’s an artist of the American Neo-Expressionist variety, she’s a rapacious female of the liberated sex object variety, and they’re abroad in Tokyo in the Sixties, at a hotel where the only other in situ character is a Japanese barman rather nonplussed at their erratic ways—is a bit too specialized perhaps. We know Williams can write good female characters, and Miriam is no exception; it’s a plum role and one would expect top actresses to want to give it a try. The problem is the character of Mark who is having a nervous breakdown and creative difficulties. The imperfections of the male lead, one assumes, is what has kept the play from getting much revival. The production directed by Chris Bannow at the Yale Summer Cabaret, then, is to be applauded for giving it a shot and for succeeding so well. Watching the play, there’s no reason to suspect we’re experiencing a “problem play” and that’s in part because the approach here is to accept the play’s oddities, neither turning them into camp nor trying to smooth them over with earnest naturalism. We have to allow for Miriam’s soliloquies, spoken into a spotlight; we have to accept the staccato deliveries of unfinished lines, the many times a statement is stopped and redirected in mid-flight. One suspects that those who panned the play couldn’t distinguish dialogue where characters cut each other off and leave their thoughts hanging from dialogue where actors flub their lines and forget how a speech ends. It’s risky to be so erratic in speech, but Bannow’s cast manages, for the most part, to make the lurches in communication part of the communication.

The effect of the whole is greatly served by the set (Seth Bodie, Scenic Design)—it exudes the cool rigor of a Japanese restaurant, with plenty of neon and colorful liquor bottles that avoid the seediness Williams often reeks of. With the impeccable barman (Mitchell Winter) in place and the Formica tables all gracefully decorated with a single flower in a thin columnar vase, the bar is more formal than inviting. It’s the kind of place that should help one keep the demons at bay. And that’s why—we imagine—Miriam is hanging out there.

But, as she quickly makes us aware, Miriam is the kind of woman who sees no point to a man unless he wants her. So, her task is to use her wiles to convince the barman he should be interested. The fact that he isn’t, and is even comically put out by her overtures—some simply coy and flirtatious, some outright indecent—is the business that occupies the opening segment, with Winter providing spirited support as the kind of non-character (he never drops his “I’m just a barman” demeanor) so essential to the scene. This part of the play establishes Miriam, in Celeste Arias’s very capable hands, as an entertaining character with full emphasis on the latter term. Miriam is a “character,” a life of the party type only too happy to praise her own vitality and her tendency to “manipulate” male genitals in her free time. In her lime green dress with straight lines out of Mary Quant, her hair and false eyelashes à la Twiggy, Miriam is a creature of the late Sixties that all concerned—Williams, Bannow, Arias, and Kate Noll’s moddish costumes—get exactly right. The voice, the cigarette, the body language bespeak an “It Girl” still looking for “it.”

The play’s problems start when Mark enters the picture, flaunting his paint-daubed suit and so clearly not the kind of man we’d expect Miriam to be mixed up with. An eventual stab at back-story lets us know that she was aroused by his timidity and seduced him. And her utter disparagement of his current work seems to stand upon the fact that he used to be something. In other words, the man she’s with is not the man she married and we meet Miriam around the time that she’s decided to escape one way or another—either by means of a little poison pellet she carries around in a snuffbox or by means of having Mark shipped—sedated on a stretcher—back to the States, leaving her free to pursue that world of hotels and room service she’s been longing for.

All well and good, but what’s the deal with Mark anyway? As played by Mickey Theis, the artist still seems to have plenty of vitality even though he’s a shaking mess unable to walk very far on his own who needs his wife to—literally—pour drinks down his throat. And, while it may seem a bit monomaniacal, a claim to have just “invented color” is not unusual as the kind of hyperbole artists use about their vision—and it’s a cue for this production to achieve some wonderful effects with lights (Oliver Wason) and color, as when Mark bangs a gong and shifts the color scheme dramatically at the end of Act I. (Kudos as well to the interesting shifts in soundscape via James Lanius.  The production values of this show are superb.)

Mark’s a shambles yes, but his dealer—the dapper, gay, and somewhat Southern Leonard who arrives thanks to a summons from Miriam—seems to think Mark’s ravings are par for the course. One suspects that Williams wants Leonard to be a sympathetic character, a man who sees worth where Miriam sees only ravaged delusions, but the production here seems not to back that up. As Leonard, Mamoudou Athie is affected in a way that puts us on our guard. He seems to have no real warmth or regard for the realities Miriam is living with. He finally steps out of his coolness, but only to upbraid Miriam with an anecdote from his childhood that Athie makes both terse and affecting.

So, Mark. I keep returning to my sense that Williams didn’t really know how to write this character. Given the playwright’s penchant for macho brutes—Stanley Kowalski—and dissolute athletes—Brick—we might think that a macho and dissolute Abstract Expressionist—à la Jackson Pollock—shouldn’t be a stretch, and yet…. It’s hard to say what Mark is on about—when he starts raving about needing a long white beard and a step-ladder so as to equal the Michelangelo of the Sistine Chapel, to recreate the creation of the Creation, we know we’re supposed to see the torment of someone trying to be a grand “Creator,” but one can’t help wishing that Williams made Mark one of those sloppy drunks who likes talking about when he was a boy. Something anecdotal would help sell this guy. Theis does his best with the grand ravings, at one point on top of a table, and there’s some well-choreographed wrestling between Mark and Miriam that lets us see what it’s all come to.

In the end Mark as artist figure seems a bit mismatched. Who works in hotel rooms? Writers, not painters. And why Tokyo? We might assume Miriam speaks for her author when she touts the discovery that, to her liking, Japanese men have not much hair on their bodies, so that slumming in Japan might just be one of the things one does as the Sixties come to an end, far from home and lost in translation.

I really wanted Miriam to have her way—ditch the stiff and get on with the grand tour. The end, in which a refusal to mourn morphs into a stripping away of falsity, makes for a borderline mad scene that feels true enough, and lets Arias pull out the stops, but, because her Miriam looks so good, we have to work to imagine her as pathetic as Williams wants her to be. Yes, as she says, at some point she’ll look in the mirror and know it’s all over for her, but “ah, my foes, and, oh, my friends—”

 

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel By Tennessee Williams Directed by Chris Bannow

Stage Manager: Rob Chikar; Scenic Designer: Seth Bodie; Costume Designer: Kate Noll; Lighting Designer: Oliver Wason; Sound Designer: James Lanius; Production Manager/Technical Director: James Lanius; Assistant Technical Director: Joey Moro

Photographs by Christopher Ash, courtesy of Yale Summer Cabaret

 

Yale Summer Cabaret July 25-August 3, 2013

Summer of Giants

Voted Best Community Theater in the 2013 “Best of” at the New Haven Advocate, the Yale Cabaret offers compelling theater in a very intimate space. During the summer months, the frenetic pace of the Cab’s three-night stands slows a bit, as the Yale Summer Cabaret takes over the space.  For the last few years, the Summer Cab has offered three plays over two months. In the last two years, the offerings have been presented in repertory style, with overlapping runs. For 2013, Artistic Director Dustin Wills has changed that, going back to earlier versions of the Summer Cabaret, which was founded in 1974. As a student in Austin, Wills worked with Fran Dorn who, he later discovered, was one of the founders of the Summer Cab. When he spoke to her about it, he learned that the initial Summer Cab offered 17 shows in a single summer. (Incidentally, a few of those plays were written by the likes of Wendy Wasserstein and Christopher Durang, students at the time.)

Wills wants the hallmark of this year’s Summer Cab to be “ambition and variety.” The initial ambition of six shows was trimmed to five but, as Wills says, these are “real plays.” Great authors providing great theater—“big plays in a tiny space.” The shows will be offered successively, which means audiences have two weeks to see each play—at 8 p.m. shows only, no matinees or late shows—before it gives way to the next.

With a troupe of eight core actors, plus two guest actors, chosen from 32 auditions, Wills has the basis for what he sees as a “standing circus”—the communal life of ensemble acting, with actors “eating, breathing theater.” Wills, a directing student entering his third year in the Drama School, will direct three of the shows, and Associate Artistic Director Chris Bannow, a third year acting student recently seen as Osric in the Rep’s Hamlet, with Paul Giamatti, will direct two. The cast consists of Celeste Arias (*15), Mamoudou Athie (*14), Ato Blankson-Wood (*15), Prema Cruz (*14), Ceci Fernandez (*14), Ashton Heyl (*14), Gabe Levey (*14), Michelle McGregor (*14), Mickey Theis (*14), Mitchell Winter (*14).

Wills and company have selected the plays carefully for their “Summer of Giants.” The plays represent a variety of eras, places, and countries of origin. Conceived as a “journey in time,” the roster of plays reads like a syllabus for a mini-survey of theater. The program begins in 17th-century France, moves to 19th-century Sweden, then to Spanish folktales turned into a comedy first published in 1930, then to an American play from 1969, set in Tokyo, Japan, and finally to two British one acts from 1987 and 2006, respectively.

Opening with Tartuffe, one of the greatest plays by the French master Molière, lives up to the “Giants” title. Wills directs a play that he says offers “a collision of comedy and severity.” Spoken in rhyming couplets but with modern touches—such as a vacuum cleaner—the Cab staging explores the excess of the period as setting for its theme of love vs. hypocrisy, and of youth vs. deluded elders—themes as relevant to our day of puffed-up charlatans in high places as to the highly mannered era of Louis XIV. With the full troupe. May 30 through June 15.

The second play of the summer is a pas de deux of power. Chris Bannow directs August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, a psychological study of passions, a clash between the sexes set amidst class distinctions. Sweden, a bit ahead of the curve in developing some of the freedoms we now take for granted, is the setting for this confrontation with the abyss of identity that can open when the old order is questioned by turn-of-the-century youngsters at the height of the summer festival. Featuring Ceci Fernandez, Mitchell Winter, and Celeste Arias. June 20 through June 29.

Spanish poet and dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca is not best-known for comedies, but Wills sees the hilarious farce The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife as an opportunity for the Summer Cab to lighten up a bit after the heaviness of Strindberg. It’s also a chance to engage with puppetry and the “expressivity of theater,” as a traveling puppeteer visits a town where the local shoemaker has abandoned his teen-aged, unsatisfied wife. Using song, poems, and folk tales, Lorca creates a timeless tale of the struggle of marriage and the vibrancy of small-town life. Wills directs Prema Cruz, Gabe Levey, Ato Blankson-Wood, Mickey Theis, Mamoudou Athie, Michelle McGregor, Ceci Fernandez, and Chris Bannow. July 11 through July 20.

Tennessee Williams is best-known for his explorations of Southern manners in his plays of the Forties and Fifties (such as A Streetcar Named Desire, which will kick-off the Yale Rep season in the fall). In his 1969 play In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, Williams takes on the trends of modern art—notably expressionism, in the role of Mark, an expat in Japan who is trying to discover new inspiration for his painting. Meanwhile his bored wife is getting predatory with the Japanese barman. Wills sees the play, with its artist figure destroying himself, as autobiographical for Williams. And with its setting of Americans in Japan, the play works within the post-war relations of the formerly adversarial nations. Bannow directs Celeste Arias, Mickey Theis, Mamoudou Athie, and Mitchell Winter. July 25 through August 3.

Caryl Churchill is one of the undisputed masters of the last thirty years of theater and her two short plays, Heart’s Desire and Drunk Enough to Say I Love You combine to showcase what Wills calls “the absolute breakdown of language.” That includes the polite language of everyday speech, as a mother and father, in Heart’s Desire, await the return of their daughter, only to find, as the play repeats and restarts, that anxieties can surface in different ways; and in Drunk, the dialogue of two men becomes a reflection on the tensions between England and the U.S. in a play that dates from the era of Tony Blair and "W." Wills directs Chris Bannow, Ceci Fernandez, Michelle McGregor, Mamoudou Athie, Prema Cruz, Mitchell Winter, Ato Blankson-Wood and Celeste Arias in Heart’s Desire, and Ato Blankson-Wood and Mitchell Winter in Drunk. August 8 through August 18.

Such demanding and challenging plays might require some “down time,” and so the Summer Cab will also host Friday Late Nights. With free admission from 10:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., the Cab’s bar will remain open and special late night events will be taking place—such as dance parties, karaoke, Tom Waits imitators, and a Boy Band sing-along. Which means the Cab, in addition to bringing us great plays by great authors with a young and adventuresome cast and artistic staff, will also be poised to be one of the best late-night hang-outs Fridays during the dog days.

See you at the Cab!

The Yale Summer Cab presents Summer of Giants Dustin Wills, Artistic Director Chris Bannow, Associate Artistic Director Molly Henninghausen, Managing Director Anh Le, Associate Managing Director

May 30 through August 18, 2013

for more information, schedules, and tickets/season passes:

The Last Romantic

The Broken Tower, written and directed by James Franco, starring James Franco, with Michael Shannon. The most obvious comment is that Hart Crane deserves better.

A complex poet who tried to combine the ecstatic reach of Whitman with a Shakespearean richness of syntax and verbal excess, while haunted by the modernist search for prevailing myths found in Eliot’s The Waste Land, Crane, born in 1899, also "wrestled the angel” that wouldn’t get full exploration until the era of the Beats: whether or not to express openly a gay sensibility.

In addition to all that, Crane was the scion of a man made rich by crass commercialism—his father invented that symbol of polite social hygiene, the Life Saver mint—with ambitions to be a writer of a more Baudelairean era. He was doomed to be “the last romantic,” a figure living out a version of the tortured artist tale that was a familiar cautionary fable before poets—beginning with the generation after Crane—regularly became tenured professors. Crane’s, then, is a very American story, poised flamboyantly between the wars, looking backward to the Paris spleen of the symbolists, participating in the Paris fads of the expatriates, and looking forward to the Paris squats of the Beats. It’s a story that partakes of an age-old incentive to suffer for art while proclaiming a noble indifference to the demands of the work-a-day world.

Does this story have anything to teach us today? Perhaps it might be the lesson that one man’s rich dilettante is another man’s outcast genius. James Franco, director and star and author and editor and co-producer of The Broken Tower, and currently a grad student in English at Yale, might be said to be resurrecting the ghost of Crane for the sake of his own romantic ambitions: as a celebrity actor, thanks in part to the meaningless but lucrative distinction of playing Harry Osborne, Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s friend/nemesis in a trio of crassly commercial comic-book rip-offs, Franco craves artistic respectability and achievement. He’s an author, an installation artist, a performance artist, a filmmaker, an exploiter/sufferer of his own celebrity—the latest post-ironic subject position in line with what used to be known as being “a poor little rich kid”—and a living, breathing, endlessly replicated image of the artist as PR stunt, or as pop image, surface sans depth, or as a self-perpetuating commodity fetish, perhaps. And, sometimes, he’s just an actor, man.

If this sounds like I’m reviewing Franco more than his film, I can’t help it. Never for a moment watching this film did I believe in Franco as Crane. Franco’s idea of convincing us of his subject’s reality is to have the folks from wardrobe put him in period costume and then let Christina Voros film him, with a sort of YouTube version of cinema verité, walking around parts of New York or Paris or the Cayman Islands or Mexico that don’t feature any anachronistic details. Unfortunately, such visuals don’t immediately transport us to the Jazz Age perambulations of Crane. Nor does watching Crane/Franco—Cranco—chop wood outside a rustic cabin while we hear him earnestly reading from a letter in which the poet voices his grand ambitions give us any real access to the ritual of withdrawal that Crane felt was necessary for his art.

And, typical of most biopics of the artist type, whenever Crane is around people he acts like a fool. He’s insufferable as, I suppose, only the truly gifted can be, but, his little moustache notwithstanding, it’s hard to separate the character Franco portrays this time around from the character he portrayed when he essayed the role of Allen Ginsberg for the film Howl, particularly when Crane sits hashing out his views over wine with a friend, sounding as if he’s waiting for a Charlie Parker sax sound-byte to catch up with him any minute. Impersonating literary mavericks seems to be Franco’s thing (he also plays Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner in short films he made for an installation), but, as an actor, he hasn’t begun to excavate what made these men who they were, rather than simply free-floating signifiers of literary greatness one finds on a college syllabus.

Franco, who began the film as a thesis at the Tisch School of the Arts, cops a bit of cinematic style from Andy Warhol in the early going, enough, particularly with Franco’s even prettier younger brother Dave playing the teen-aged Crane, to make us think fond thoughts of Joey Dallesandro, and if that’s not enough to make us feel we’ve entered a “gay sensibility,” there are quasi-explicit moments of sex with men to register Crane’s lonely candle. And there’s even—naively—Robert Lowell’s poem “Words for Hart Crane” printed on the screen (unattributed) to let us know that everything this film is trying to say, about the poet maudit “wolfing the stray lambs of the Place de la Concorde,” was masterfully said in sonnet form in the late Fifties.

And that brings me to what dismays me most about The Broken Tower: the sense that Franco, dissatisfied, understandably, with the roles Hollywood sends his way, is trying to find his own path by standing on the shoulders of giants. The background most significant to this foray into what is ultimately a vanity project about Hart Crane is Franco’s early role as James Dean. The greatness of Dean as an actor is unplayable by another actor; one can only look foolish trying to “be” James Dean on screen. And yet Franco took on the task. It helps that he resembles Dean at times, and that’s enough to make us think sometimes of Dean while watching The Broken Tower, and that produces an odd Franco-inspired palimpsest that is surely the point of this film—Hart Crane was a rebel without a cause, got it? Dean was doomed to be Dean; Crane, Crane. Franco seems doomed to be a well-intentioned interpreter of an ineffable greatness that eludes him.

The effort is not without its pathos, but it’s the pathos of Franco, rather than of Crane. The closest we get to the latter is when Crane reads “The Marriage of Faustus and Helen” to a stuffy literary salon. Franco reads the poem dutifully, respectful of its sonorities but never relishing them, and we get a shot of what John Berryman called “spelled, all-disappointed ladies,” eyes alight, listening. For a moment we get an idea, with the poet’s words ringing in our ears, of what an unheralded creature young Crane was, overwrought at times but always graceful, at his best “original . . . and pure.” We glimpse his greatness and we see that, like Baudelaire’s albatross, his wingspan will make him an awkward figure in life.

The rest is a montage of clichés in search of a script.

The film opened this weekend at IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, W. 3rd Street, New York; James Franco will be on hand for Q&A following the 7:35 p.m. screening (sold out) and will give an extended introduction to the 10 p.m. screening, on Sat., April 28th; he will also be in person on Sunday, April 29th, for Q&A following the 5:10 p.m. screening and will provide an introduction before the 7:35 p.m. screening.