The true mission of drama is to take you on a full, unexpected journey, something ever more rare in these artistically bereft times when crap like BLACK SWAN gets taken seriously and unendurable screechfests like NEXT TO NORMAL win the Pulitzer Prize. How happy, then, am I to report that such a journey is in store for you with the New York premiere of Tennessee Williams’ unknown 1970 one act play, GREEN EYES, at the Hudson Hotel.
The entire evening proves to be a delightful, if slightly scary, adventure, from the half-price cocktails your ticket entitles you to in the hotel’s terminally chic, tenebrous bars to being personally escorted in groups of 14 by the show’s terrific director, Travis Chamberlain, to one of the hotel’s smallest rooms, floozied up like some raffish New Orleans econolodge, where you sit in perilously close proximity to the performers.
And what performers! From the second the electrifying Erin Markey makes her lingeried entrance, crooning a Bessie Smith blues, covered with mysterious bruises and slinking into the room like a tigress in heat, as newlywed Mrs. Claude Dunphy, all set for her honeymoon night, you know you are in the presence of histrionic fearlessness. She is more than matched by Adam Couperthwaite as Claude, a rattled Vietnam vet, alternately ravening for her and repulsed by her plans for his Army paycheck, which, like any good ole boy, he plans on sending home to Mama. One could almost imagine the wedding night of Stanley and Stella Kowalski being like this one. The blonde, buff Couperthwaite is a simple feast for the eyes (one can just sense Tennessee smiling down from Thespis’ heaven) and brings a dangerous sexual power and searing vulnerability to Claude which evoke no less than that ultimate Williams conduit, Marlon Brando, in his devastating youth. This guy is a star in the making, believe it!
The most intensely erotic power games ensue in what must be Williams’ rawest play, rife as it is with misogyny; blatant talk of sexual desire, used condoms in the toilet and black male endowment, and incendiary usage of the N-word (especially now, with that mindlessly p.c. re-edit of Mark Tawin’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN). These things, undoubtedly shocking in 1970, remain so today, although ahead-of-his-time Tennessee, who almost single-handedly ushered in sexual frankness into American theater with A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, simply prefigured what constitutes so much of modern dramaturgy, not to mention reality TV. And, what with so many shattered vets returning from the Middle East these days, as well as the eternally provocative play-out of male-female struggle for control within relationships, this work is incredibly fresh and timely.
At a wonderful panel on January 15 at the Museum of of Arts and Design, directors Chamberlain, David Herskovitz, Elizabeth LeCompte and Moises Kaufman spoke trenchantly about their experiences tackling Williams’ later, “problematic” works like VIEUX CARRE, CAMINO REAL, GREEN EYES and, in Kaufman’s case, an adaptation of Williams’ short story ONE ARM, about a single-limbed male hustler. LeCompte’s Wooster Group production of VIEUX CARRE opens at the Baryshnikov Arts Center/Jerome Robbins Theater on February 2, and she entertainingly described her recent interactions with Sylvia Miles, the redoubtable star of the original 1977 London production. LeCompte used the film imagery of Warhol director Paul Morrissey for inspiration, especially HEAT, not realizing that its star, Miles, had also appeared in VIEUX CARRE. She said Miles had been replaced when the show came to Broadway (and failed after 6 performances), by another fierce Sylvia, the dragon-like Sidney (ask anybody who ever met her), and has never gotten over it. When Miles heard some of LeCompte’s plans for the production, including the use of homoerotic video and a dildo, she shrieked “You can’t! You can’t!’ But this shrieking was as nothing compared to her reaction when she learned that she was not going to be asked to reprise the role for LeCompte. “Her dream is to win an Oscar for it, and when she learned that, she screamed at me for a full half hour,” LeCompte confessed.
Erin Markey was also at the panel, and I asked her about Charles Isherwood’s cluelessly dismissive review of GREEN EYES in that morning’s New York Times. She admitted that, while the night he attended may not have been their best preview performance, she couldn’t help but noticing him practically hugging the walls of the intimate theater space-cum-hotel room in what looked like agony, so intimidated was he by the up-close-and-personal performance proximity. Most of the other reviews have, happily and accurately, been positive, and we joked about starting a campaign to rid the Times of this critic who all too often infuriatingly seems to get it wrong, dissing good work while lauding the lousy.
There’s a final free panel installment in this series, THE KINDNESS OF STRANGENESS, which Chamberlain organized, next Saturday at the museum at 3 PM, entitled I’VE COVERED THE WATERFRONT: TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’ QUEER REPRESENTATIONS OF SEX AND GENDER (2 Columbus Circle). Scheduled to appear are Williams scholars David Kaplan, Thomas Keith, Annette J. Sadik, David Savran and Markey, herself, moderated by Joe E. Jeffreys.
You can read my in-depth GREEN EYES interview with Chamberlain, Markey and Couperthwaite in GAY CITY NEWS out this Wednesday, January 19. (www.gaycitynews.com)
For full info about GREEN EYES click here
and, for you die-hard Sylvia Miles fans, an intriguing interview with her re VIEUX CARRE appears here