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A CurtainUp Review

Tennessee Williams Remembered

Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson have certainly hitched their staged memoir to a timely wagon. This season the name of Tennessee Williams, one of this century's most poetic American playwrights, once again appears on a theater marquee. In fact, his never before produced early play, Not About Nightingales is competing with Side Man by living American playwright Warren Leight for a Best Play Tony. The Wallachs (in case you didn't know, they're married) make no reference to Nightingales which is running concurrently with their show further downtown at the Circle In the Square. Their mix of patter and scene excerpts does, however, include another Camino Real. While relegated to an early grave in 1952 (after just sixty performances), it too is timely in that the Williamstown Theatre Festival is mounting a revival on its Main Stage starring Ethan Hawke in the role that Mr. Wallach originated (Kilroy).

At first glance, making Williams the cornerstone for their eighty-minute patchwork of anecdotes, letters from "Tenn" and play snippets seems as perfect a match as their over half a century young marriage. After all, it was Williams' one acter, This Property Is Condemned, which brought them together prompting Jackson's wry comment: "We were the only two people in the cast, so I fell in love with him." A clip from some film footage taken by the director of that play (Terese Hayden) showing a quite handsome Eli (who exclaims "look, I had hair") and breathtakingly pretty Anne portraying two runaways in their late teens tugs at your heartstrings. Only the most hardened cynic could resist this couple, no longer young, but living proof that dreams of fulfilling careers and enduring love are possible.

Unfortunately despite the obvious genuineness of this endearing and talented pair's affection for each other neither their personal story or the Williams material lives up to the promise of that beginning. The "hook" of their long professional connection with Williams in the final analysis ends up giving us two half loaves of theatrical history rather than one rich and nourishing one. The details of their lives which, if more fully fleshed out would include the downturns in their stage careers, seems the stuff of a much richer and more informative memoir -- possibly a first-hand version of the Frommer's It Happened On Broadway (reviewed by us-- see link).

Anyone who saw Mr. Wallach in the recent Off-Broadway hit Visiting Mr. Greene knows that he can still act rings around people half his age. Ms. Jackson too remains a stage presence to be reckoned with Her all too brief appearance in last season's Mr. Peter's Connection being the one bright spot in that otherwise disappointing Arthur Miller play. But trying to re-showcase roles they once played, or would have liked to play (i.e., the Rose Tatoo scene in which Ms. Jackson who was not in the play does a Anna Magnani takeoff to Mr. Wallach's reprise of the role he created), is something of a disservice to both playwright and players.

The bare bones staging -- a table, a few chairs, and a prompter to handle the letters from which they often read -- does little to give us a sense of the grandeur of the period during which the Wallachs and Williams' career paths were so closely intertwined. Given the handsome settings of their more recent plays and the lovingly and lavishly recreated Lower East Side Cafe Crown in which they last appeared together in 1988, this production feels excessively downsized even with the well-known director Gene Saks at the helm. When you consider the mismatched outfits of the two performers, the costume credit insert for the highly credentialed Carrie Robbins seems to have blown in from some other play -- Mr. Wallach's shirt and pants could come straight off a rack at Filene's or Today's Man near the ArcLight Theatre while Ms. Jackson could easily have found her dressier and more actressy outfit in her own closet.

These comments about the modest scale of Tennessee Williams Remembered begs a final consideration. The price of this pleasant eighty-minute diversion by two fine actors and likeable personalities is not exactly in the church-theater category, a fact which gains importance when you consider that you can see the stunningly staged and acted three-hour Not About Nightingales for just a few dollars more. The play may not be as good as those from the playwright's most successful period , but it's a fascinating look at a topflight talent its first phase. The inspired staging and top drawer acting also makes one hope that the upcoming Williamstown production of Camino Real might turn the play Williams loved and most critics trashed (Walter Kerr dubbed it as t"he worst play yet written by the best playwright of his generation") into a critical success at long last. This value received note vis-àvis the ArcLight and Circle in the Square offerings would become irrelevant if the Wallachs could be persuaded to dance back out to share the secret of their obvious enjoyment in each other's company after all these years.

Not About Nightingales
Visiting Mr. Greene
CurtainUp's Playwright's Album page on Tennessee Williams
Side Man It Happened on Broadway

With Eli Wallach & Anne Jackson
Directed by Gene Saks
Costume design: Carrie Robbins
Lighting design: Eric Cornwell
ArcLight Theatre, 152 W. 71st St. -- Wed - Fri at 8pm; Sat at 3pm & 7pm; Sun at 4pm; Wed at (212/307-4100)
5/20/99-6/20/99; opening 5/27/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 6/02 performance

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