The ART is presenting a staid production of Tennessee Williams’ talky chamber play about wanderers struggling to be released from their pain.
The Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Michael Wilson. Presented by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA, through March 18.
By Bill Marx
A creature dedicated to marketing and tweets, obsessed with ratings and shameless hyperbole, a salesman incapable of admitting that anything he does is less than a gargantuan success — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — Donald Trump is our first president who exists in order to hype. (I blurb myself, therefore I am.) Mediocrity does not exist. He is king of superlatives and his speech, as a recent piece in the Guardian points out, is “redundant, formulaic, aggressive, and ‘post-literate.’ The nuanced language of resistance – of critical discrimination – doesn’t stand a chance in this gale force of guff. In other words, Trump is the master of the language of the blurb, the sales talk of far too much arts criticism.
These thoughts jumped into my mind when I received the American Repertory Theater’s e-mail blast trumpeting its production of Tennessee Williams’ 1961 drama The Night of the Iguana. The missive’s subject line was “A Revelation,” “Awe-Inspiring,” and “Unforgettably Perfect.” Filled with effusions of sublimity, these e-circulars have become an accepted marketing tool for theaters, both large and small. A reliable cadre of critics supply the ecstatics. Of course, the Trump-like quotes are there to sell the show, not the reviewers or their publications. When you click on “Unforgettably Perfect” in the ART’s e-mail, for example, you are whisked off to the company’s website. Always be closing. (Sex doesn’t hurt — the ART’s photo is of Iguana star Dana Delany stroking the bare chest of co-star Bill Heck. Too bad there is so little erotic chemistry between them in the production.) It was the head-scratching formulation of “Unforgettably Perfect” from Dig Boston that rattled me — is there such a thing as forgettable perfection?
The mention of “revelation” brings me to the reality of the ART production, which is amiable staging of what is essentially a talky Williams chamber play in which various tormented or lonely wanderers struggle to find what will get them through the night: art, sex, or death. It strikes me as Williams’ ‘magic mountain,’ set in 1940 at “a rather rustic and very Bohemian hotel,” the Costa Verde, in a beachside community in Mexico. The Christ typography and symbolism (Madonna and Whore) are obvious — though Williams feels he needs to underline it for us — as is the heavy-handed plight of the captured iguana, nature yearning to be free rather than fricasseed. The visiting German tourists are played for laughs mostly, and that is a missed opportunity — we hear the voice of Hitler, but his brand of evil is, unfortunately, marginalized.
Instead we have the lapsed priest, Shannon, reaching the end of his tether as a tour guide for a second-rate company, a born satyr fretting about forsaking God. His means towards salvation comes with the arrival of Nantucket spinster artist Hannah Jelkes and her grandfather, a 97-year-old poet struggling to finish what promises to be his final poem. This is Williams, so there are marvelous effusions of raw emotions and remembrance of strange desires. Is any American playwright more lyrical about the desperate need for kindness, the lethal absurdity of cruelty? But there isn’t much cruelty (or sustained conflict) in the script, only yearning: to finish out life, to find peace, to land some companionship. Williams seems too tired this time around to withhold these graces from his characters, even though some rejection might have been closer to the truth. After all, the Nazis are in the process of crushing civilization.
The 1964 John Huston film version, starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner, revved up the major characters and their self-torture, turning the proceedings into an enjoyable but melodramatic cartoon that celebrated the inevitability of fecundity. Michael Wilson is a master at directing Williams — I admired a number of his productions of the dramatist’s work at Hartford Stage — and he wisely brings The Night of the Iguana down a few notches from the movie’s brand of hysteria. The focus is on the play’s therapeutic vision: Shannon and Hannah are opposites that protect and learn from each other. Still, Wilson clings too tenaciously to the text’s realistic trappings rather than drawing on the spirit of the experimental work that Williams would soon be embracing. Last summer, the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s staging of The Rose Tattoo (directed by Trip Cullman) showed how even one of the dramatist’s more straightforward scripts could be artfully (and expressionistically) jumped up. Wilson hugs the conventional here — the production’s neat and detailed set (via Derek McLane) doesn’t suggest that the jungle is but a few steps away. Worse, the performers in this “star filled” production don’t provide enough raw energy, sexual or otherwise, to push the production beyond the safe and sound.
Pining for Shannon, Maxine Faulk, the owner of Costa Verde, exudes a sensuality that cloaks a deep loneliness. Dana Delany brings neither steaminess or a repressed sense of panic to the role — she is pretty matter-of-fact, a business woman waiting for her ‘desired male’ package to be delivered. Raging hormones don’t seem to be a part of the deal. She is lightly jealous of Hannah, who is portrayed with an effective (and affecting) combination of softness and steel by Amanda Plummer. As Shannon, Bill Heck is definitely hot and bothered, but he projects a comfortably suburban level of neuroticism — a sort of twitchy nervousness — and then refuses to budge beyond it. He gives a performance that might look big on the small screen, but doesn’t make all that much of an impact on a large stage. James Earl Jones brings plenty of goofy charm to Nonno, the superannuated versifier, but that deep rich voice isn’t given much of value to intone, especially the character’s disappointing forays into verse. Yes, Nonno is a minor poet — but he is the creation of a major American poet/playwright. So you expect more from the night’s au revoir, aside from a very happy lizard.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.