Speak, memory

Vieux Carre

By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Jeff Seabaugh
NativeAliens Theatre Collective
Flatiron Playhouse
119 West 23rd St., 3rd fl. (212/726-8891)
Equity showcase (closes Nov. 15)
Review by Jenny Sandman

Vieux Carre, written in 1978, is one of Tennessee Williams's later plays, and one of his most shamelessly autobiographical. It is set in a once-respectable but now run-down boarding house in the French Quarter of New Orleans, at 722 Toulouse. Williams stayed at a boarding house at that exact address in the late 1930s -- the same time period as the play. The main character of Vieux Carre is a nameless young man, simply called "The Writer," who is struggling with both his fledgling literary career and his homosexuality. It's grittier and more brutally honest than most of his other plays, which may be why it isn't performed that often. The classic Tennessee Williams traits are there: the lilting language, the squalid setting, the cast of characters who are desperate for change. Like The Glass Menagerie, Vieux Carre is a "memory play"; the narrator (in this case, The Writer) narrates the story to the audience, often stepping out of the action to soliloquize. He frames the action with his memory of it many years later.

When The Writer (Matt Mercer) arrives at 722 Toulouse, he becomes caught up in the lives of the other tenants. It appears at first that the house is a den of iniquity; but later he realizes, "There's so much loneliness in this house you can hear it." He is seduced by an older tubercular painter (Scott Gilmore), who fiercely refuses to admit his condition; then he becomes a somewhat unwilling friend of the bitter, delusional landlady, Mrs. Wire (Rebecca Hoodwin), who in another life might have been Blanche Dubois. Upstairs is Jane (Cynthia Russell), a society girl on the run with a terrible secret, living with Tye (Chris Pade), a criminal and drug addict. Downstairs are two poor old ladies, literally starving to death; in the basement is a gay photographer, intent on throwing orgies. As The Writer struggles with his crushing poverty and loneliness, Mrs. Wire begins to confuse him with her son. Just as things start to turn around for The Writer, they begin going swiftly downhill for Jane, and he must decide whether to leave and go west or stay and help her.

It's not quite a coming-of-age play, but The Writer's circuitous journey to self-knowledge and awareness is the central action of the story. Most of the other characters are fully aware of their bleak situation, and of the steps they took to get there. Jane knows she has no business with Tye, that he will bring her nothing but heartache, and still she cannot bring herself to leave. The tubercular painter denies his illness, but he doesn't deny his sexuality. It's only a matter of time before The Writer is forced to confront some basic truths as well.

It was a simple, honest production, with solid acting. The set (Randy Lichtenwalner) was charmingly decrepit, with tattered drapes, exposed beams, and one sagging cot that represented the sagging cots of all the tenants. It was excellent use of a small and oddly shaped space. The large cast fit well in the space; they moved in and out fluidly, and never overwhelmed the tiny stage.

Mercer, as the Writer, made an admirable anchor for the production, though Hoodwin, as Mrs. Wire, stole the show. She served as both emotional foil and comic relief. Russell, though a little fluttery, also made a good foil for the thick-witted Tye, played with admirable density by Pade. The cast as a whole worked well together; director Jeff Seabaugh did an excellent job of recreating Tennessee Williams's world.

It was a fine production of a rarely seen Williams classic; this was an auspicious start for NativeAliens Theatre Collective's season.

Also with Susan G. Bob, Nicholas Mitchell, Jodi Lynn Smith, Carac Vander Wiel, and Charles Wulster.

  Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 2
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2003 Jenny Sandman