Cultural Arts: Stages
The Lost Plays of
Three short plays—Mister Paradise, The Palooka, and And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens—come from a collection of Williams’s one-acts that were published posthumously. These new discoveries include some of his most poignant and hilarious characters, including the witty and tough drag queens of And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens, the old has-been boxer and his young protégé in The Palooka, and the strange writer behind the nom de plume Mister Paradise. These small gems perfectly exemplify Williams’s description of his one-acts: “The little glass slippers lost in my midnight scramble down the stairs”
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Robert Burgos, Brian Foyster and Jack Heller
Produced by Los Angeles LGBT Center/Jon Imparato
Presented at the Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre on March 21, 2008
Remounted at the Coast Theatre on June 5, 2008
THE CAST: MR. PARADISE
MISTER PARADISE……….Jack Heller
THE GIRL……….Melissa Lechner
THE CAST: THE PALOOKA
THE TRAINER……….Willam Mahoney
THE PALOOKA……….Timothy V. Murphy
THE KID……….Jason Lopez
THE CAST: AND TELL SAD STORIES OF THE DEATHS OF QUEENS
MR. DELANEY……….Brian Foyster
ALVIN KRENNING……….Chris Carver
JERRY JOHNSON……….Jonathan Runyon
The three one-act plays were: Mister Paradise directed by Robert Burgos; The Palooka directed by Brian Foyster; and And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queen directed by Jack Heller. Settings by Danny Cistone; lighting by Kathi O’Donohue; sound by Ed Zajac; costumes by Dana Campbell; production stage manager Crystal M. Munson; assistant stage manager Zackry Barclift; and run crew Chris Carver and Jonathan Runyon.
Every now and then, the muses perform a mitzvah, just to remind audiences how miraculous pure theater can be. The blessings currently on view at the Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center, “The Lost Plays of Tennessee Williams,” are three brief but absorbing portraits of double identity — souls both liberated and trapped by their dreams.
Williams described these recently discovered one-acts as “the little glass slippers lost in my midnight scramble down the stairs,” and in this intimate, seductive production, his Cinderella selves rush fevered from the ball even while knowing their futures are about to be squashed.
We start in a New Orleans flophouse to meet “Mister Paradise.” It’s 1942, and a Manhattan bluestocking (Melissa Lechner) has tracked down a reclusive poet (Jack Heller) surviving on smokes and anonymity. Intent on restoring the writer to his former glory through a series of lecture tours, she’s stunned when he rebuffs her plan. “Gabriel has not yet blown his horn,” he explains, and the two create a fragile space where death and hope yield to each other in surprising ways.
In “The Palooka,” a veteran boxer (Timothy V. Murphy) bonds with an up-and-comer (Jason Lopez) over a mutual crush on a legendary fighter long gone from the ring. Both need to believe in a man so celebrated that women would crowd him on the street just to pull souvenir buttons from his coat. This short scene, not part of the Actors Studio workshop production last year, needs to find intentions as cogent as those driving the two other plays.
“And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens,” the evening’s longest piece, diagrams the transactions between Delaney, a wealthy, aging French Quarter drag queen (Brian Foyster, astonishing) and a beefy sailor (Chris Rydell). The two perform a riveting dance of self-awareness and self-flight, each character using the other to block a reality he cannot bear. On some level, this is Williams’ defense of gays, radical when penned in 1959 but now—at least superficially—a cultural given. “Just imagine this country without queens,” chirps Delaney, remarking on the limits of heterosexual design sense and suddenly channeling Carson Kressley. In less-disciplined hands, “Queens” could be cringe-inducing, but director Jack Heller and cast find all the colors—eroticism, grotesquerie, power, humor—in each beat.
Like every great writer, Williams has to be constantly rediscovered. He’s always inches from parody, what with his humid universe of pajama-clad cripples and colored lampshades. Broadway’s current African American production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” has restored some of the claws to the classic’s languid purr, and it’s finally the tension between the lyrical and the opportunistic—a perpetual face-off between the playwright’s inner Blanche and Stanley—that propels Williams’ vision.
This production needs to work out a couple of bumps. The sound cues are more distracting than evocative, and the small theater can get as hot as a New Orleans summer night. But overall, the directors and casts work in impressive tandem, creating a coherent, resonant evening. Even the deft set shifts are fun to watch, as a stale, shabby boxing gym becomes a tarted-up French Quarter apartment. The show’s pleasures speak to the double-edged bliss that Williams, and theater itself, perpetually offers: transformation—which can never last.