Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Theater Thoughts: "His Greatness" at The Fringe Festival

Let me admit something up front -- even though I'm a total theater geek, I'm not a 'festival guy.' Every year The Fringe Festival in NYC comes and goes, and I barely pay attention. So please feel free to take what I have to say about His Greatness, a play by Daniel MacIvor receiving its US premiere with a grain of salt.

Having said that, theater is theater, right? So it shouldn't matter that I'm not a 'festival guy,' right? Right?


His Greatness is "based on a potentially true story" about "two days in the last years of the life of playwright Tennessee Williams," as the famous playwright drinks, does drugs, suffers scathing reviews, emotionally abuses his co-dependent assistant and sleeps with a hustler, whom he fancies will become his new muse. "Potentially" is the key word in that press release blurb -- all slander issues are sideswiped but not actually naming the lead character "Tennessee." Though Arthur Miller is name-checked, and Edward Albee is quoted, Williams is never called by name in the show, and is referred in the program only as "the Playwright." Got it?

Williams is certainly a complex enough historical personality to be worthy of exploration, but unfortunately this show just doesn't do him justice (and not just because there are repeated mentions of him shitting his pants when he's drunk). What we learn here is that he drinks, is emotionally tortured and possibly insane -- something anyone with a cursory knowledge of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof could probably gather. I had heard rumblings that there was controversial material here, but aside from the fact that it paints Williams in a rather depressingly sad light, and features a young hustler in red underwear (see photo above), there wasn't much titillation happening onstage at the Cherry Lane Theater. Though I am a fan of Williams, and am interested in the man behind Maggie the Cat and Blanche du Bois, the general feeling I walked away with was "who cares?"

I can't blame the actors for my apathy -- Peter Goldfarb (as Williams), Dan Domingues (as The Assistant) and Michael Busillo are certainly game, but they can't overcome the tepid material. Goldfarb's accent goes in and out, and he doesn't bear much of a resemblance to the playwright, but other than that he's totally competent (if a bit one-note), as are Busillo and Domingues. And though Tom Gualtieri's direction isn't horrible, he doesn't do much to enhance the material. If you're looking for a Williams fix, read one of his plays -- they are sexier, more human and much more complex than this show about his a couple of days at the end of his life.

Now back to my un-Festival-ness -- the sold-out audience I was with seemed to very much enjoy the show. Is it perhaps because many of them are frequent Festival-goers, and His Greatness, while no major work, exceeds most of the dreck they've seen in quality? Who knows? But as I've said, feel free to take this review with a grain of salt. Just don't "wage war" on this critic, as the young hustler suggests Williams does after his play gets panned in Vancouver -- I won't care enough to fight.

1 comment:

Scott Kenan said...

I once served as Tennessee Williams’ assistant. I met him a year after the Vancouver production of “The Red Devil Battery Sign,” and continued in that position for six months, through the staging of his last new play produced during his lifetime, “A House Not Meant to Stand” at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

Since I now live in Stone Mountain, GA, I have been unable to witness Mr. MacIvor’s play onstage, but some time ago, received a copy of the manuscript. I can say that whatever merits “His Greatness” has, they do not include insight into the nature, life, or poetic core of Tennessee Williams—in his later years or at any other time. I did not recognize Tennessee Williams in Mr. MacIvor’s play. Additionally, the Young Man is not the type “young man” Mr. Williams would have associated with at all—I had considerable experience dealing with Mr. Williams’ “young men.” Whether the Assistant reflects my personal qualities or not, I’ll leave to others to decide.

Although I cannot speak for them, the Williams scholars with whom I have been in contact and who have seen or read “His Greatness” are of the same opinion of Mr. MacIvor’s play.

My memoir of the six months I worked for Tennessee Williams, "Walking on Glass: A Memoir of the Later Days of Tennessee Williams" will be released by Alyson Books in hardcover, April 2010. I do not mention this as commercial promotion—it’s months too early to pre-order—but to let your readers know that the record will be set straight.

By all means, enjoy Mr. MacIvor’s play—as simply a piece of theater—but please reserve judgment on the nature of Tennessee Williams. There must be a reason Mr. MacIvor takes great pains not to mention Tennessee’s name or the titles of his plays.

And thanks for the perceptive review--and the grain of salt.

Scott Kenan