Theater Review (NYC): “Five by Tenn” – Short Plays by Tennessee Williams

The Tennessee Williams shorts were mixed, and that’s the way it is Five of Tenn, an evening with them presented by Out of the Box Theater Company. The company is dedicated to opportunities for older actors, among other things. This works well for Tennessee Williams, as the great playwright’s work so often focuses on a person past their prime and howling at life’s unfairness. Regardless of the details of his protagonists’ disappointments, Williams had a keen sense of the wounds that time can inflict and an equally keen if romanticized eye (and ear) for how American dreamers of a particular era express their anger at dying could bring the light.

Five of Tenn shows himself at his best by starting with The strangest kind of romance. This is the only one of the five selections that takes place in multiple scenes and works as a complete, albeit short, one-act play. The others are miniatures.

Beth Griffith is compelling as a middle-aged landlady and all but widowed whose passion for life and love is never expressed except in her latest retiree. The Little Man (a poignant twist from Franco Pistrillo) is an Italian immigrant and poetic soul whose existential alienation allows him to become attached only to a cat he ultimately can neither groom nor tame, and a woman who can never be his. He takes a factory job he can’t handle and – as we used to say before we had our modern mental health sensibilities – he collapses.

The landlady’s aging father watches the factory from his retirement home and shakes his fist at capitalist greed and oppression. It’s an idea-mouthpiece role, but Joseph Rose delivers a surprisingly convincing performance.

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With better survival skills than her retiree, the landlady is able to move on, if only by renting out the little man’s room to a boxer (a small role, but a riveting performance by Clinton Faulkner). However, we sense that her dwindling feminine tricks will not work with this racquet. Having the strength to keep going doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going anywhere.

Hello from Bertha is the best of the miniatures, although that’s not saying too much. It has a fleshed-out title character and a suitably ragged performance by Gloria SauvĂ©, who exaggerates the aging prostitute while barely getting out of bed. (Harlan D. Penn’s simple set serves well with only minor tweaks from playlet to playlet.) Bertha is reminiscent of William’s more famous Fading Queens, although the cast of a black actor adds an interesting layer of unspoken commentary here.

Out-of-the-Box Theater Five by Tenn Tennessee Williams
Photo courtesy of Out of the Box Theater Company

Unfortunately, racism is explicit in The Last of My Solid Gold Watches. Aging salesman and occasional racist Charlie Colton (Mr. Rose again) laments the disappearance of the world he used to know: “I don’t understand what happened!” because “we old-timers are disappearing fast”. Casting an over-aged actor as “whippersnapper” who has to absorb the old man’s anger is a bit of a problem compared to the doorman’s combined Stepin Fetchit/Magical Negro character. Frank Bowman gives this anachronous double offense as much dignity as he can, but it’s time to put this special miniature back in the miniature cabinet forever.

As for Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen… and The Lady of Larkspur Lotion, their cast fails to bring their (at best) thinly drawn characters to life. Mostly disembodied musings and monologues, the plays don’t give the actors much to work with. It would take something truly magical to make of it.

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However, a bit of Tennessee Williams is good for the soul every now and then. Five of Tenn only runs until June 19th. If no one is hosting Tennessee near you, try TCM – they play End station longing very often!

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