By Stanford Friedman
Opposites attract, especially when they’re plastered. So, when a flamboyant Tennessee Williams (Juan Francisco Villa) and a repressed William Inge (Daniel K. Isaac) guzzle a bottle of gin then follow it up with a bottle of whisky, the pants come off and the two men get awfully handsy, and obscenely footsy, in Philip Dawkins’s raucous comedy, The Gentleman Caller. Or, looked at another way, in this fact-based drama, two of America’s greatest playwrights explore how the art of writing both feeds and starves their brutal addictions and bouts of self-hatred. Yes, under the fiery direction of Tony Speciale, this production tries to have it both ways and, for the most part, it succeeds.
Act One recounts the men’s real-life first meeting, albeit through the hazy, Williams-esque filter of a memory play. Tennessee sets the mood with his opening line to the audience, “I’ll describe the room as I remember it, not necessarily as it appears in our play.” The room in question is Inge’s St. Louis apartment in the year 1944. Inge is employed as a drama critic and Williams is a playwright on the rise with The Glass Menagerie about to premiere in Chicago. For Inge, this is a chance to draw close to a man he admires and craves (In reality, the exact depth of their relationship remains a mystery.). Williams, meanwhile, is depending on the kindness of a stranger. He’s game for sex, but only as a quid pro quo for an interview to be published in the St. Louis Star-Times.
The fact that the scene transpires in the mind of Williams allows for broad action and the occasional surreal interlude. The characters quaff their liquor like the water and tea that the actors are no doubt actually drinking. Williams performs an impressive bit of debauchery with his toes and Inge’s dog, unseen though it may be, is the cause of a funny, slow motion romp that leave the two as physically entwined as they are emotionally tangled. Williams is a loud and sloppy drunk while Inge is finicky and foppish. As a result, there are times during the first act when one cannot help but think of The Odd Couple. Of course, Oscar Madison never faced dire moments where he was forced to proclaim, “Oh now I’ve said something honest and turned everything awful.” and Felix Unger was never so conflicted that he had to declare, “Just because a thing is ‘natural’ that doesn’t make it pure.”
Act Two transpires in Williams’s Chicago hotel suite on New Year’s Eve, with Inge in town to review Menagerie and to rekindle their alcohol-fueled flame. In a shout out to Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, a huge bed symbolically takes up most of the space, but in case that is not obvious enough, Williams has suffered a fall and, for a while, walks with a crutch, a la Brick, before abandoning it for the greater good of the production. Similarly, Inge informs Williams that his dog has run off primarily for the benefit of a subtle Come Back Little Sheba joke. Fortunately, two fine dramatic sequences by Dawkins propel the act to a higher level. In one, Inge elegantly analyses Menagerie, exposing more of Williams’s psyche than Williams is comfortable with. And in the powerful final scene, Inge fights off his demons to embrace his playwright destiny, even as Williams looks into the future to warn, “You’ll be loved by everyone until you’re not.”
In channeling a young Williams, Mr. Villa sometimes looks and sounds like a young Orson Welles, but same difference I suppose. Villa’s grandiosity is in keeping with the playwright’s larger than life reputation though his despair over his sister Rose is underplayed. Mr. Isaac has more room to mold the lesser known Inge and manages a fine balance between comic and suicidal desperation. As he demonstrated in his fine one-man show, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, director Speciale knows how to build laughs while drawing out tension. And Sara C. Walsh’s smart scenic design includes numerous, impossibly tall columns of loose leaf paper, imprisoning the men in a cell of their own device.
The Gentleman Caller – By Philip Dawkins; directed by Tony Speciale.
WITH: Daniel K. Isaac (William Inge) and Juan Francisco Villa (Tennessee Williams).
Scenic design by Sara C. Walsh, costume design by Hunter Kaczorowski, lighting design by Zach Blane, sound design and original music by Christian Frederickson. Abingdon Theatre Company at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., 212-352-3101, abingdontheatre.org. Through May 26. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes.