New York Theater Review Notes: Tennessee Williams and Hotsy Totsy Burlesque

A charming, thoughtful one-man homage to writer Tennessee Williams and a hilarious burlesque spoof of TV’s Mad Men.

En Avant!: An Evening with Tennessee Williams, written and performed by William Shuman. Directed by Vidya Foley. In Studio 72 at the Triad, 158 W 72nd St., New York, NYC, through September 2.

Where the Mad Men Lie, written and performed by the Hotsy Totsy Burlesque at the Slipper Room, 167 Orchard Street, New York, NYC.

William Shuman as Tennessee Williams. Photo:

William Shuman as Tennessee Williams. Photo courtesy of Shuman.

By Paul Dervis

Even before the performance of En Avant! began, its program won me over. The play, subtitled An Evening with Tennessee Williams, is dedicated to Lenny Baker. Baker, an actor on the rise in the late 1970’s, had won a Tony Award and had just completed his first starring film role in Paul Mazursky”s autobiographical Next Stop, Greenwich Village when he was stricken with what soon came to be known as AIDS. Instead of taking his rightful place with Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and the like, he died, passing into relative obscurity.

It was a thoughtful, charming dedication to a charming, thoughtful evening of theatre.

En Avant, French for ‘moving forward,’ is a mildly pretentious title. But there is nothing at all pretentious about this show. William Shuman performs his one-man play exquisitely. He is dry-witted, quiet, yet still commanding. He takes on the persona of someone we sense we know well, yet he exposes a Williams that is, at times, quite new to us.

The evening is set in the present, though Williams died more than thirty years ago. Even though he is talking to us from beyond the grave, Shuman’s version of Williams is human to a compelling fault, a man fully prepared to admit his failings, often at the cost of our appreciating his accomplishments. This Williams spends less time pontificating about the plays that brought him to the pinnacle of his profession than confessing to the weaknesses in his character that crushed his personal relationships and limited his success in Hollywood. He talks about the paralysis triggered by the guilt he felt over the treatment of his schizophrenic sister (his model for Laura in The Glass Menagerie) who eventually was lobotomized. These failings haunt him, though he is aware that they helped drive his remarkable career as a writer.

One of the lasting impressions left by this production is how intimate the evening feels. Often bio-plays are hellbent on filling the stage with theatrical bravado…but not here. The play pokes and probes into the distant recesses of the author’s thoughts. There is more than a little existential feel to what comes off as an intimate vision of a personal purgatory featuring a tortured Williams speaking gently from The Great Beyond. Shuman ennobles his version of Williams with a kind of brittle grace. The actor manages to look very much like the writer, and his Southern accent is on the mark. More important, Shuman seems to get at the emotional essence of the playwright, which is an impressive accomplishment.

The production bounces around in time and space, but it never loses us. A simple set is augmented by an effective use of lighting and music to change the mood. Director Vidya Foley maintains a tight reign on the pacing, keeping things moving briskly along. Working with Schuman, Foly never resorts to easy sentimentality. Together, they have shaped a deeply touching portrait of a bedeviled genius.

On the evening I attended, a packed house gave a standing ovation that was richly deserved.

Hotsy Totsy Burlesque spoofs TV "Mad Men."

Hotsy Totsy Burlesque spoofs TV’s “Mad Men.” Photo: Ben Trivett.

A Zany Burlesque Spoof!

Hotsy Totsy Burlesque, a New York comedy troupe, opened their new cabaret show, Where the Mad Men Lie, this week at the Slipper Room in the Lower East Side. Produced by Joe the Shark and Cyndi Freeman, the company specializes in risque take-offs on popular culture. This show, a send up of Mad Men, was totally silly and lots of fun. You need not be a junkie of the cable TV hit to thoroughly enjoy the night.

The eight performers are all comic pros. Freeman and Brad Lawrence were the night’s MCs, and they doled out more than their share of one-liners. Although all of the cast members stirred up the audience with agile aplomb, of particular note was Sapphire Jones as Betty. She did a commendable job of portraying a deadpan Bettie Page wannabe. She performed two ten-minute bump-and-grinds, throwing her body totally into the performance, all the while looking completely bored. Audience members lined up to stuff her lingerie with bills.

The make-up of the audience was of particular interest. There must have been two women for each man there.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for hs work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011′s The Righteous Tithe.

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