Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: Tennesse Williams' In Masks Outrageous and Austere -- or Two Dead Gay Guys


NOTE: This review contains some spoilers. 

"I'd rather be dead than be a born-again Christian." -- Babe in In Masks Outrageous and Austere

The great American playwright Tennessee Williams was working on his last play, In Masks Outrageous and Austere, when he died in 1983. It is a fair assumption to make that the play was completed by others, but the playbill for the first production at the Culture Project on Bleecker Street in the east village of Manhattan, doesn't say who -- maybe the director, David Schweizer? There are sections that are clearly the work of Williams [or a parody thereof] -- dithery women rushing on breathlessly -- but other sections could be the work of anyone.

The play officially opened on Monday, April 16th 2012. [NOTE: This review is based on a preview I saw the week before.] There is every attempt to give the play a handsome production, hopefully to distract from the fact that In Masks Outrageous and Austere isn't very good. Williams was still capable of writing great plays in his late period -- Vieux Carre is a masterpiece -- but Masks probably didn't need to be completed or disinterred.

The plot, such as it is, is as follows: Wealthy "Babe" (Shirley Knight), her gay husband Billy (Robert Beitzel), and his boyfriend Jerry (Sam Underwood), who is employed by Babe, are all apparently kidnapped to an unknown place by men known as the "Gideons." There is a weird, evangelist-type neighbor, Mrs. Gorse-Bracken (Alison Fraser) with a "retarded" son named Playboy (Connor Buckley), who never speaks. Babe has an assistant named Peg (Pamela Shaw) who is carrying on with a grease monkey named Joey (Christopher Halladay). Other minor characters show up who add nothing to the show.

It's interesting to remember that in the decade before Williams died, Shirley Knight's husband John Hopkins wrote the Broadway play Find Your Way Home, in which a married man with a wife falls in love with a younger gay hustler; in other words a triangle situation similar to the one in Masks. Find Your Way Home was deeply flawed. but it was a better play than Williams' absurdist comedy-drama.

Babe is cut from a long line of Williams faded heroines and seems to have an interesting bisexual back story. We really don't learn much about Billy and even less about his younger lover. Billy simply seems to be a rather pathetic gigolo. The play's best scenes remember that there is a "situation" here and has wife confronting lover and vice versa, while weak Billy never really deals with anything.

At the end of the play the "Gideons" -- representatives of the outraged Moral Majority; who knows? -- shoot and kill both Billy and Jerry [after Babe walks off to the beach], so what we're left with basically is two dead gay guys. Great!

Williams must be given credit for opening the doors to depictions of homosexuality in American theater. The trouble is as Williams got older he didn't really stay up to date with the new attitudes of Gay Liberation, so some of his plays seem rather dated and pre-Stonewall in their dealings with gay characters and situations. Maybe he felt Find Your Way Home already dealt with the husband-wife-boyfriend triangle and wanted to do something different. Maybe he just wrote himself out and had little else to say. He tried to experiment and be modern as the decades proceeded, but only when he literally went back to his roots with Vieux Carre -- the play deals with his early life in a New Orleans hotel with various eccentric boarders -- did he produce a work of lasting merit.

Still, even a mediocre or bad Williams play has interesting things in it, and Masks is no exception. There are some good scenes and amusing, trenchant dialogue. I believe that most of the audience members were applauding not for the play but for the actors. Shirley Knight, a very gifted lady [and she looks great at 76!], is wonderful as Babe. She's so good that you wish she'd been given a better vehicle to perform in. Alison Fraser is also quite good, and it's not her fault if her role is so irritating that in the second act you cringe each time she appears. Beitzel's [presumably] put-upon southern  accent occasionally swallows his dialogue, but he does his best with an under-written role. [It could be argued that Billy is another in a long line of Williams gigolos.] Sam Underwood is quite effective as Jerry, the only character you really feel any sympathy for, despite his motives never being completely delineated. The supporting cast is quite competent for the most part. One of the best performances isn't live, but on video when Babe makes a phone call to her doctor, whom I believe is played very well by an uncredited Austin Pendleton. [If I'm wrong my apologies to Pendleton and whomsoever played the part.]

One utterly tasteless aspect of the morally-ambiguous play is the treatment of the mentally disturbed "Playboy," who is apparently a minor and is molested both off-stage and on by more than one character. 

In conclusion, Masks might have been a much more successful play if Williams had more fully developed the characters and examined the triangle situation with more depth and veracity, instead of going off on surrealistic tangents. Still, the audience seemed to be having a good time, which is not true for every evening at the theater.

The Culture Project, which produced the play, is "dedicated to addressing critical human rights issues." It appears that Masks was a bit of a stretch.


Thrasher said...

I'm not an expert on his body of work, but Jared Ronin is (a college friend), who happens to be a writer from Tennessee and a Williams fan.

I gather it's a struggle for Southerners, even for renowned playwrights from there, to rise above a Christian Caste system.

The Director's choice of title/version is interesting. I don't know if the production out of the blue is in any way related to current events, but I suppose that's all we're left with: wild speculation and capitalizing on that sort of tenuous buzz.

I'd like to know more about the two dead gay guys. Sounds like a cliffhanger to the Book of Revelation 11, even if Tennessee was by that waning time a nominal heretic.

Bill Samuels said...

I would have liked to know more about the gay guys and everyone else, but what can you do? Williams was in his own private world by then. Anyway, thanks for your interesting comments. Bill