Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Sweet Bird of Youth"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


"SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH"

by Tennessee Williams
directed by Del Lewis

Chance Wayne … Scott Adams
The Princess Kosmonopolis … Gillian Mackay-Smith
Fly … Ross Hopman
Maid … Lisa Martin
George Scudder … Sean Morris
Hatcher … Brian Petersen
Boss Finley … Thomas Keating
Tom Junior … Sean Hopkins
Aunt Nonnie … Fiona Mallek
Heavenly Finley … Cassandra Meyer
Charles … Joseph Ripley
Stuff … Mike Satow
Miss Lucy … Leah Canali
The Heckler … Nate Thibodeau
Violet … Carly Assael
Edna … Ilana Guttin
Scotty … David Lucas
Bud … Brian C. Fahey
Bar Patrons & Youth for Boss Finley … Matt Seaver; John Fagan; Tristan Bultman; Maylin Murphy; Brenna Isaacson
Page … Dayin Chen

Last spring, Boston University did a respectable production of Tennessee Williams’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF; for a few performances more, Northeastern University is surpassing it with Mr. Williams’ SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH: watching the N. U. production, at times you may forget that these are college students stirring up this tarnished pot of love, hate, lust and decadence --- it’s that good.

SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (1959) has long occupied a lower rung in the Williams canon along with its immediate predecessors ORPHEUS DESCENDING and SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER --- these are Mr. Williams’ Problem Plays; various hells on earth where the ape triumphs over the angel (with gruesome fates for the male leads) and the sensational all but obliterates the tenderness of Mr. Williams’ poetry; after two more plays --- PERIOD OF ADJUSTMENT and THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA --- Mr. Williams began his sad decline, as man and as artist. Over the years, ORPHEUS DESCENDING has crept up a rung or two; SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER will always remain a bit of macabre camp. SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH has plums for a mature woman and a beautiful young man --- Princess Kosmonopolis, a fading movie star traveling incognito, and Chance Wayne, a hustler who has brought her to his home town for a reason --- but it is several plays crowding onto one steamy stage: Acts One and Three are engrossing two-character Mood pieces; Act Two is the Southern Gothic Plot, with a new shipment of characters coming onboard: among them, Heavenly, Chance’s true love, and her rabid father Boss Finley who is running for office on a platform of racial hatred and who wants to castrate Chance for seducing and assumedly infecting his daughter. The Princess gives way to the Boss who in turn is reduced to a shadow on a television screen; minor characters start out promisingly then are snubbed for the rest of the evening --- i.e., George Scudder; Aunt Nonnie; Miss Lucy; The Heckler --- the play concludes with Chance, having lost Heavenly for a second time and realizing he is washed up at age 29 (!), meekly submitting to the Boss’ knife (!!). SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH needs a director-welder to join it all together (even Elia Kazan had trouble with it, on Broadway); Del Lewis is not that director, but he does the next best thing: he captures enough of the play’s repressed, closeted atmosphere without sending it up (the laughs come where they should) and he concentrates on his actors (character, not plot, was always Mr. Williams’ strength); this BIRD may fly off in different directions, but it definitely flies.

I was curious to see how Scott Adams would portray Chance Wayne; I first saw him as a Shakespearean bit player; two autumns ago, his boyish George was nearly devoured by his Emily in the BTW travesty of OUR TOWN. Here, he has advanced by leaps and bounds; now blond for his role, Mr. Adams’ hustler convinces on several counts: (1) his torso, on display throughout Act One, is toned but slender, quite in keeping with 1950s beefcake; (2) rather than strutting his stuff, his Chance is taciturn; reluctant --- sex is his job, not his pleasure; he is already (mentally) separated from his penis; (3) Mr. Adams even suggests what Chance would be like in bed: kissing would be out --- all his tenderness is stored up for Heavenly --- should he ever lie with a man, he would penetrate but not be penetrated. Much of this taciturnity stems from Mr. Adams himself, who can still be a bit of a blank --- his scenes in Act Two are the pudding’s proof --- he needs to be provoked; challenged; TOUCHED into giving a detailed performance. Gillian Mackay-Smith, his Princess, magnificently supports him (no pun, intended); Mr. Adams, in turn, helps to shape her own performance.

Ms. Mackay-Smith --- tall, ample and ripe with personality --- easily drew an Addison, two years ago, for her dotty Henrietta in THE FANTASTICKS --- but she has a growing bag of tricks and mannerisms that needs to be rationed: her much-married matron in THE WOMEN did everything but drop her drawers to get a laugh; last year, she was encouraged by THE VISIT’s director to slither about as a punk Auntie Mame; “Oh, the boys will LOVE this!” she seemed to murmur --- I, for one, did not. (The difference between being a character comedienne and a camp is that the former sends up her gender from within and on her own terms --- a lesson Ms. Mackay-Smith should take to heart once she leaves Northeastern’s halls.) She tends to play to herself when onstage, which worked for Henrietta, on her way to second childhood, and the Countess de Lave and Claire Zachanassian, both so rich they could afford not to listen to anyone. Her Princess starts off the same --- more blowsy self-absorption; this time, from her medication --- under Mr. Lewis’ guidance, when Ms. MacKay-Smith wraps herself around Mr. Adams’ hardness, she becomes more subtle and selective in her hamming, though no less amusing; Mr. Adams, engulfed and warmed by his leading lady, starts to soften --- to quote from Mr. Williams’ gravestone, the violets break through the rocks. Thus, Ms. Mackay-Smith’s flub-dubbing points up the Princess’ vulnerability behind all the bravura (she’s a likeable broad, underneath); Mr. Adams becomes guardedly compassionate, like a child trained to pick up after an addicted parent --- what is left on the table is a mutual triumph. (Ms. Mackay-Smith even throws in a bonus --- she relaxes in her two monologues and a pretty young woman stands before the audience, and she made me blink at the start of Act Three with her hair and make-up properly in place --- pretty, indeed.)

Much of the ensemble is good, especially Thomas Keating’s Boss Finley, played as the villainous cardboard that he is though he is more buffoonish than frightening, and Sean Hopkins as his son, alternately smooth and slimy. Sean Morris’ George has a thorn-sharpness about him that keeps him memorable long after he has faded into the background, and Fiona Mallek’s Aunt Nonnie, though unnecessary, is a properly fretting hen. Cassandra Meyers is a striking Heavenly, all coal and ivory, but plays her entirely through the nose.

Takeshi Kata and Matthew Richards have effectively designed and lit the Princess’ bedroom and the Boss’ terrace on a college budget, but that battleground-bed, those slatted windows with the sun burning through --- we’ve been there, before; so, alas, has Mr. Williams: watching this golden production, I couldn’t help feeling that by 1959 Mr. Williams had run out of things to say and from then on wrote as “Tennessee Williams”, instead.

"Sweet Bird of Youth" (4-14 February) < dd> NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY DEPARTMENT OF THEATRE
Studio Theatre, Curry Student Center, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 373-2247

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