I can’t decide yet what I think about the revival of Tennessee Williams’s late theatrical piece, Two Character Play, currently at New World Stages, with Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif.
The work itself is an oddity, not exactly a play so much as a meditation by the author on the meaning of his own life’s work – or, better, like a collage of common motifs, akin to the late Jasper Johns catenary above. The piece is itself a two character play, about brother-sister duo of actors, reaching the end of the line. They have been on the road together for their whole lives, and the work hasn’t paid for some time. It’s gotten so bad that, the day before, the rest of the company abandoned them in an unnamed town where they were to next to perform, leaving a half-constructed set on the stage and a cablegram informing them that they are both insane.
There being nothing else to do, they proceed to mount their play, called “Two Character Play,” a piece written by the brother, Felice – who, in the absence of the rest of the company, must also raise the curtain, man the lights, control the tape reel that provides the music, and play the narrator, explaining to the audience what is happening when the limitations of their half-built set demand recourse to their imagination. (One gets the sense from Dourif that this is merely an extension of the kind of total-management that he has long provided for his sister, Clare, in the “real” world.”) The play-within-a-play feels like a parody or half-recalled pastiche of Tennessee Williams’s more famous work. It’s about a brother and sister who may both be mad and live as shut-ins in their parents’ rambling and broken-down home somewhere in the Deep South – and have lived their ever since their father killed himself and his wife in a murder-suicide. Much of the action revolves around an attempt to actually go out to the store. (They don’t make it.)
I say the play feels half-remembered; I mean that both literally – Felice and Clare keep dropping lines, and have to improvise much of the text – and figuratively, in that it feels like Williams is less interested in convincing us that there is a real play there being performed than in giving us a picture of what living in Williams-ville feels like to him, at this late date. And it isn’t a pretty picture.
Amanda Plummer’s performance as Clare is electric, constantly surprising and quite terrifying; she conveys a palpable awareness of true madness just barely under the surface of theatricality. But the piece as a whole feels more like an author’s conversation with himself, turning over and over his feelings towards his poor sister, who was always his primary muse, and his feelings about his own position as a theater artist, in particular an artist facing a theatrical landscape that had changed radically since the days of his greatest success, than an attempt to communicate with an audience, and all the meta-theatricality feels like tricks to fool us into thinking that he’s aware we’re there, and that we matter. But we aren’t fooled.
Nonetheless, if you’re interested enough in Williams to want to spy on him as he picks at his mental scabs, this is a golden opportunity. And if you just want to see Amanda Plummer walking her signature mental tightrope, this is a golden opportunity for that as well.
The Two Character Play runs through September 1st at New World Stages in New York.