Once mortals turn out to be immortal, it’s straightforward to overlook how precariously they stumbled by life. That is definitely true of Tennessee Williams, who ensured his place in the pantheon of American playwriting together with his early hits “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” however spent his final twenty years — after “The Night of the Iguana,” in 1961 — in what Hilton Als calls “a kind of critical purgatory.”
But critics at their most significant aren’t a baying wolf pack chasing weakened prey. They’re champions of the neglected, the underpraised, the misunderstood. In that spirit, Als, a author for The New Yorker who received the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2017, is asking for a reconsideration of some late Williams works.
In “Selections From Tennessee Williams,” the second episode of the two-part New York Theater Workshop podcast “Hilton Als Presents,” he plucks excerpts from three performs dismissed in their very own time: “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel,” from 1969; “The Red Devil Battery Sign,” which succumbed in 1975 en path to Broadway; and “Clothes for a Summer Hotel,” Williams’s remaining Broadway premiere in his lifetime. It opened in 1980 on his 69th birthday and was met with such a pile-on of viciously mocking critiques that it closed after just two weeks.
These performs usually are not distinctive in Williams’s oeuvre as issues of masculinity, sexuality or the divided self — although, as Als notes, every features a male artist character.
Directed by Als, and with skillful audio manufacturing and enhancing by Alex Barron, the podcast doesn’t at all times achieve conveying, with voice and stage instructions, what we have to envision.
The scene from “The Red Devil Battery Sign,” starring Raúl Castillo as a band chief and Marin Ireland as a sexually rapacious belle, feels too untethered from context so as to add as much as something. But every of the different performs is memorable for a standout efficiency and for glimmers of magnificence in the textual content.
The longest excerpt, from “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel,” at first appears an airless train: an encounter between a brittle but lascivious American girl (Nadine Malouf) and the Japanese barman (James Yaegashi) she is harassing. It involves life solely belatedly, with the entrance of Reed Birney as her husband, Mark, an exceedingly drunken painter struggling to take care of his dignity and harness his artistry. It is an totally lived-in efficiency, edged with terror and mirth. (John Lahr, in his biography of Williams, calls this play “a fascinating dissection of the perversity of his psyche,” and he’s appropriate.)
“In the beginning,” Mark says, his fingers shaky, paint throughout his swimsuit, “a new style of work can be stronger than you, but you learn to control it. It has to be controlled.”
Williams, at that time, was not doing so nicely at controlling his artwork, his addictions or his emotional frailty.
The different magnetic flip is by Michelle Williams in “Clothes for a Summer Hotel,” which the playwright labeled “a ghost play,” about Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. As Zelda — a task originated by Geraldine Page on Broadway — Williams evades the traps that lie in wait in Tennessee Williams’s ladies: the masks and artifices of gender and sophistication that made him well-known for writing diva roles, and that always expose these characters to ridicule. Against the odds, Michelle Williams locates a human being.
“Are you certain, Scott, that I fit the classification of dreamy young Southern lady?” Zelda asks her husband (performed by André Holland). “Damn it, Scott. Sorry, wrong size, it pinches! Can’t wear that shoe, too confining.”
Tennessee Williams, too, felt pinched and confined by expectations. He was without end in competitors together with his youthful self.
Als’s manufacturing doesn’t persuasively argue for these late performs. But it does accomplish what a critic is supposed to do when elevation is so as — to induce shut examination of one thing that may in any other case escape our gaze.
Perhaps, taking Als’s cue, some sensible director will see a method.