Entertainment » Theatre

The Gentleman Caller

by Rob Urbinati
Wednesday May 16, 2018
Daniel K. Isaac and Juan Francisco Villa in "A Gentleman Caller."
Daniel K. Isaac and Juan Francisco Villa in "A Gentleman Caller."  

When creating characters based on real people, playwrights are free to invent. Biographies of famous individuals often present conflicting portraits. Even those who were acquainted with these figures often saw them in contrasting, and at times, contradictory ways. Seeming "facts" of their lives are in dispute. Playwrights can speculate, determine behavior, and invent actions. No correct portrait of any person who has achieved fame exists, and there is no need to strive for "historical accuracy" when writing a play about them. What is essential is that the writer develops engaging, believable human beings, and credible situations. And that is where Philip Dawkin's "The Gentleman Caller' falls short.

At the start of the play, in direct address to the audience, Tennessee Williams, played by Juan Francisco Villa who looks a lot like the young playwright, offers biographical information with sly, Southern wit and charm. Serving as narrator, he delivers asides to the audience throughout the production. He is inside and outside of the play, reflecting on the events. Like Tom in "The Glass Menagerie," he asks the audience to experience what is about to unfold as "a memory play."

Act One takes place in November 1944, before Williams achieved success. He visits William Inge, played by Daniel K. Isaac, at his home in St. Louis. Inge writes for the local newspaper, and interviews Tennessee before the opening of his latest play, "The Gentleman Caller" (which became "The Glass Menagerie") "I really need something written about me," Williams confides. Tennessee arrives late for the interview, and Inge remarks, "That's okay. You're the only thing I have to do this afternoon," In a few moments, ten minutes into the play, at this, their first meeting, Inge assaults Williams, and tries to rip his pants off. This behavior, with Inge as the aggressor, feels unmotivated, given that soon after, he asks Williams, "You're not one of those, are you?"

Despite some amusing lines - Williams spouts catty remarks about critics and actors, and lewd jokes about famous people - and poignant moments - Inge delivers a harrowing account of cruelty he witnessed - the invented situations in which the Williams and Inge characters find themselves in "The Gentleman Caller" are not always convincing. What these fictional creations are asked to do is certainly possible, but many are not effectively dramatized. Too much of the action feels forced, for effect, as the characters lunge from scene to scene without a logical through-line or consequence of what went before. The focus on a sexual encounter begins to feel less compelling than other options that might have transpired between these two iconic figures.

Williams is loud, garrulous and confident, while Inge is timid, anxious and desperate. Their opposing manners set up a tantalizing contrast. Although both drink to excess, Williams acts like a drunk in a 1930s Hollywood movie - stumbling, falling, jumping up and down on the sofa, and crawling around on his hands and knees, while Inge does not exhibit any drunken behavior.

The characters discuss theatre and the creative impulse. Despite Williams' prodding and encouragement, Inge is afraid to admit he's a playwright. Reluctantly, he hands Williams a manuscript of a play he's written, "Farther Off From Heaven," (which became "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs"). The writers also consider who is more "bitch," (i.e., effeminate), and talk about sex. Williams is promiscuous, and involves himself in dangerous liaisons, while Inge's closeted sex life thrives on fantasy. Each makes attempts at seduction, comic or aggressive. "What happens here stays here," says Williams.


Daniel K. Isaac and Juan Francisco Villa in "A Gentleman Caller." Photo: Maria Baranova.  

Act Two is set a month later, on New Year's Eve, in William's hotel room in Chicago. Inge's interview has been published and "The Glass Menagerie" opened. The play, according to Williams, is "a hugely moderate success." Having now seen his work, Inge is in awe of Williams: "I didn't know you were wonderful." Entranced, he kisses a page in Tennessee's typewriter. Inge believes "The Glass Menagerie" is autobiographical, but that Williams is Laura, not Tom. Tennessee read Inge's play - "It made me jealous" - and passed it onto his agent, Audrey Wood, who was equally impressed. Inge tells Williams, "You saved my life," and Williams warns him that "what was pleasure will become business." Touchingly, the two broken characters' loneliness, despair, and personal demons emerge. Williams lives in constant fear of the "blue devils," and suicide is never far from Inge's mind. At midnight, the writers share a tender kiss, as pages float down from above.

Some of the writing is worthy of the men who inspired "The Gentleman Caller." Considering how homosexuality influences his writing, Williams asks, "Do you honestly think a heterosexual could have written "Remembrance of Things Past?" Or "The Sun Also Rises?" Or the Bible? Only a fugitive, only a man on the run could write something so vital!" He asserts, "We use our imaginations to ignite the pain of those who attempt to destroy us."

But too much of the play is squandered on superfluous references to both writers' plays (Inge's dog runs off like the puppy in "Come Back, Little Sheba," and Williams uses a cane as a result of a drunken spill, like Brick in "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,") and boisterous high-jinks. Tennessee takes off Inge's belt with his toes and slips a bare foot into his pants. He insists that Inge use binoculars to watch the lesbians across the street have sex as he fondles him from behind. The play and production often suggest a sex farce and would benefit from more subtlety and modulation.

Most of the best moments in "The Gentleman Caller" are its quiet ones, like the slow, tender dance to the haunting Ink Spots' hit, "I Don't Want To Set the World on Fire." Christian Frederickson provides subtle, effective underscoring for some of the play's intimate moments. When they allow its characters to genuinely engage as human beings, playwright Dawkins and director Tony Speciale's show their skills. But often, the action is frivolous or frantic.

As with every Abingdon Theatre production since Speciale became Artistic Director, the design elements are first-rate. Sara C. Walsh's stunning set consists of impeccable period furnishings and imposing, precarious towers of manuscripts of various heights, each topped with a table lamp. The towers remain onstage for both acts, beautifully lit Zach Blane, who imbues some heightened moments with saturated colors, and tints the exposed brick wall of the Cherry Lane Theatre to great effect. Many of Hunter Kaczorowski's handsome period costumes end up scattered on the floor.

In the play's final moments, Williams offers a compelling beyond-the-grave summary of his and Inge's successes and their deteriorating careers in later years. He wonders how they will be perceived by future generations, and proudly proclaims, "We infected people's spirits." It's challenging for a playwright to attempt to bring to life these two legendary gay figures in American theatre - men who gave the world so many celebrated plays. While too many scenes are unwieldy and unpersuasive, moments throughout "A Gentleman Caller" do justice to the intriguing relationship between these complex friends and rivals.

"A Gentleman Caller" continues through May 26 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St, New York City, NY. For more information, visit the Abingdon Theatre website.


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