BLANCHE & GEORGE & MARTHA & STANLEY
TENNESSEE WILLIAMS & EDWARD ALBEE
(Above: Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams. Photographed by the great Jill Krementz.)
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I once attended a rather fraught dinner party at Edward Albee’s place in Montauk which he was having for his mother Frankie who was visiting from Palm Beach. Edward famously detested her - “fraught” and “Frankie” often went together in his life - so he was more dutiful host that night than faithful son. I drove over from East Hampton with one of Edward’s oldest friends, poet Howard Moss who was also the poetry editor of The New Yorker and an early mentor of mine. Psychotherapist Joanna Steichen, widow of photographer Edward Steichen and executor of his estate, was also there (she lived close by in Montauk) as was Elaine Steinbeck, widow of writer John Steinbeck, who arrived from Sag Harbor. As Howard and I entered, Frankie - regal and rangy and in need of rearrangement - emerged from the loo and recognized me as the latest young man ripened with yearning to have been cut from the herd of homosexuals with which she seemed to think she must contend as Edward’s mother, yet another frisky foal of their frolicking sort to be included in their fold for some reason as unfathomable to her as was the homosexual impulse itself. Edward was later to write a play titled Three Tall Woman and this entitled tall one took my measure, then rolled her eyes in a manner alluring yet alarming. I suddenly felt like The Young Collector in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire who had come to call on Blanche, a collector of the young. But instead of a squalid flat in a compact French Quarter compound I was in an elongated Long Island home of the man who had inherited Williams’s mantle as America’s greatest living playwright since Tennessee’s death a couple of years before.
“You look like you know your way around a zipper,” Frankie said and turned her back so that I could see that her dress’s needed attention. I morphed in that moment from The Young Collector to a miscast Stanley Kowalski inappropriately fumbling with Blanche’s buttons on the back of her dress if he had acquiesced to her entreaty to do so in Act One, Scene Two. Howard shrugged at me. It was his turn to roll his eyes. Joanna and Elaine didn’t know whether to be aghast or to giggle. Edward? He moaned, exiting stage left toward the kitchen. After obediently zipping up Frankie, I followed him in there to see if I could be of any further help. Pouting, he told me that his mother was having digestive problems so most of the meal had to be puréed into an assortment of hues held in an assortment of dishes, a Montauk mush of color that matched one of those gloriously mushy Hamptons sunsets that Howard and I had just admired on the drive over.
The dinner conversation was alas a bit of a mush as well. After Joanna had told a few anecdotes about accompanying her husband and his brother-in-law Carl Sandburg for a spot of tea with Lady Bird Johnson at the White House and Elaine, prompted by Howard, held forth hilariously with some theatre stories about being the stage manager for the original Broadway production of Oklahoma! as well as for the road company of Othello that starred Paul Robeson and Frankie had said something derogatory about Robeson, a tense lull settled in as Edward continued to pout and the rest of us stared at the unfinished mush on our plates.
It was my turn to steer the conversation so I asked Edward who his neighbors were out in Montauk. I knew Uta Hagen, who had lived there and loved it so, was the one who had convinced him to move to Montauk after he had persuaded her to star in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. “Who’s on that side?” I asked, slightly pointing with my spoon after carefully swallowing some aubergine concoction.
Edward brightened. I recognized that little glint in his eye when he, always the playwright, saw the dialogue coming a few sentences away. “Ralph Lauren,” he said.
“And on the other side?” I asked.
“I’m sure someday it too will be Ralph Lauren. He’ll be both my neighbors. And when I’m gone, he’ll scoop this up,” he predicted. “He’ll be me. I’ll never see him everywhere.”
And somehow that little enigmatic riddle of a remark which got a confused chuckle from us all as if we were attending an Albee play - the line had landed - turned the evening around as the conversation evolved into a discussion about what it, in fact, takes to be a good neighbor - especially out in the Hamptons - and about Ralph Lauren’s talents and how he had captured the American imagination almost in a writerly way. I like to think that Ralph - who did buy Edward’s Montauk property after the playwright’s death and discreetly combined it into his family’s Montauk compound - would from time to time come over after maybe some surfing or biking to shoot the Montauk breeze with Edward and talk about the importance of the falsity of narrative in the truth of each of their lives.
I was thinking about that dinner party - tense with dialogue as a result of its refusal of the refuge conversation can conjure because of its not needing to be conjured itself - on my way back to London from Bath the other week after seeing Edward’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, directed by Lindsay Posner, in the Ustinov Studio at the Royal Theatre. Elizabeth McGovern had starred as Martha with Dougray Scott as her George. Charles Aitken played Nick to Gina Bramhill’s Honey. I had told Aitken afterward that he was the best Nick I had ever seen and how I wish Edward were still around to have seen it himself. McGovern had an alarming allure about her, much like Frankie, a tall order in itself. She was much more a lithe tigress in, I presume, the Uta Hagen and Elaine Stritch mode (Stitch was the matinee Martha in the original Broadway production) than a louche lioness as was Elizabeth Taylor in the film and others since. In fact, McGovern would be great in a revival as well of Three Tall Women. The original West End production of that, which I also saw, starred her Downton Abbey cast mate Maggie Smith. I wish I had been able to see the Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, directed by Joe Mantello, before the COVID lockdown closed it before it could open. It starred Laurie Metcalf as Martha and Rupert Everett as George. But it was the Nick of Russell Tovey and the Honey of Patsy Ferran that I really wanted to see because I think they are two of the finest actors working today and it would have been interesting to see the echoes of their Britishness echo, in turn, in the outsider cadences that Edward wrote into those parts in their counter-rhythmic encounters with the performative roles of George and Martha which he, a maestro of that societal membrane between manners and malevolence, semantically orchestrated.
Indeed, that real-life membrane was the essence of his fraught relationship with Frankie and became the connective tissue of his plays, the dramatic tension that echoes through them all as echoes of Tennessee Williams were reverberating at his home for me in Montauk. Experiencing both the metaphoric membrane and the menacing mincing of Frankie that created it for him - a literal Albee woman alluding to a Williams one limned in the literature of lighting cues and stage directions - made me blanch a bit myself that night. But ever since it has made me realize the deeper artistic echoes within the works of Tennessee and Edward, playwrights with emotionally battered boyhoods inhabited by complicated mothers who saved themselves as grown men by inventing, as artists, narratives about the destruction that invented narratives can unleash, quietly queering then leveling lives. A Streetcar Named Desire and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are at their dark hearts about women destroyed by the narratives that are felled finally by their falseness, and they along with them. The knowing men - one rude with erudition, the other randy with the lack of it - who spar with them spare them no quarter. There is more than a bit of Blanche and Stanley in George and Martha in the way they battle and belittle. Nick, like Mitch, is romantically objectified in order to be used for unromantic ends; both men are needy to be needed. Honey, once her own false narrative has been exposed is, like Stella, where the emotional honesty of horror hovers then takes up residence; they are the ones who pay for paying witness and, as such, seem to be stand-ins for these two playwrights who always seem to be stoically hovering themselves, wingless in the wings, as the horrified witnesses of their own words taking flight away from them on the windy drafts of their creation.
(Above: Elizabeth McGovern and Dougray Scott as Martha and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Royal Theatre’s 120-seat Ustinov Studio space in Bath. Photo by Johan Persson.)
Albee’s use of false narratives in his plays is more absurdly enigmatic - The Zoo Story, A Delicate Balance, Tiny Alice, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, The Sandbox, et al. - than those employed by Williams who finds his own delicate balance of poetry and melodrama to advance those embedded in his imbalanced characters. There are echoes too of Blanche and Stanley in the false narrative battles and the subsequent leveling of lives in Brick and Big Daddy, Amanda and Tom, Alma Winemiller and Dr. John Buchanan, Chance Wayne and Alexandra del Lago. Kilroy in Camino Real is a pilgrim in a fantasized dreamscape of narratives peopled block by block by characters already invented in literature. In The Night of the Iguana, Shannon, another collector of the young like Blanche, is drunkenly haunted as a result by his fall from grace as a preacher which allowed him to preen about and prattle on from some pulpit until he could only hold sway from some Mexican hammock because he blasphemed the mythic magnificence of the biggest false narrative with the deepest truth he had pledged to advance and never question. In that regard, Shannon - who fucked with faith, which depends on doubt in order to be faith not to weaponize doubt to denounce it - is more drunken playwright himself than drunken preacher when he comments about the butch female chaperone of the young woman who wants to be collected by him in Williams’s play, “Miss Fellowes is a highly moral person. If she ever recognized the truth about herself it would destroy her.” There in that very line lies the incongruous linchpin of both Williams and Albee’s art, two queer writers who steered clear of the restrictive labeling of their work in such a way during the peaks of their careers but instead queered the lives of their characters in other ways with the false-narrative innateness that gay men of their time lived in their own realities that could become publicly absurdly enigmatic, privately poetically melodramatic. Such false narratives leveled many gay and lesbian lives but these two men leveled up and became artists to ritualize the doubled realities of their day.
Another connective thread between Albee and Williams is Patsy Ferran, to me the greatest stage actor of her generation, who not only won the Olivier Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Alma in Williams’s Summer and Smoke in 2019 but also recently starred as Blanche in the acclaimed production of Streetcar directed by Rebecca Frecknall (who also directed Summer and Smoke) at the Almeida Theatre in Islington where Frecknall is an Associate Director. The production will be moving to the West End for a six-week run between March 20th and April 29th at the Phoenix Theatre. I saw it four times at the Almeida and might have been its earliest and biggest champion. Paul Mescal, nominated for an Oscar for his role in Aftersun, was a big draw as her Stanley and he was certainly giving a star turn in the role even as he dug deeper than the usual characterization of Stanley so that we were seeing the manifestation of the character’s own complicated childhood and need to be nurtured. His brutishness was a part of his brokenness. Also in the cast were, respectively, the brilliant and deeply moving Anjana Vasan as Stella and Dwane Walcott as Mitch and Jabez Sykes at The Young Collector who, in Frecknall’s fantasia, is also the choreographed manifestation of the young poetical gay man in Blanche’s life who committed suicide. Frecknall has radically reimagined Streetcar. She has also colorblind cast Stella and Mitch as well as Eunice, beautifully realized by Janet Etuk. I even saw Frecknall play Eunice because of Etuk’s being ill the first of the four times I saw the production. Seeing Etuk later, pointed up something about Frecknall as a director: she’s not great at “productions.” I am not, in fact, a big fan of her Cabaret in the West End which has been lavished with awards. What she does instead is create a kind of organism from the unthreaded fibers of a play with each carefully considered actor cast in each role part of its systemic substance, a living thing separate from the actors who all combine to give it its life, a beautifully sculpted throbbing gobbet, textual with tendon tendencies. Frecknall’s presence in the play as Eunice, as good as she was, threw off the balance of the thrilling living throb of the piece; it needed Etuk, I saw later, as Frecknall had already seen in her vision of this play. Streetcar is done set-less on a bare stage in the round in the Almeida’s small space - with the barest minimum of props. This, alas, led Frecknall to cut the play’s last line, delivered by neighbor Steve, about the upcoming poker game being “seven card stud” and, thus, signaling to us that life just goes on no matter any momentary rupture that might occur when delusion and danger and madness and violence are visited upon it. Indeed, Williams’s initial title was The Poker Night and it was reportedly his agent, Audrey Wood, who changed it to A Streetcar Named Desire. But that is more than balanced out by that lack of a set and the use of minimal props conjuring the feeling of being in an advanced scene study class with remarkable actors relaxing into doing their finest private work. I felt like a fellow acting student instead of an audience member, and thus part of the organism that Frecknall has fashioned. She not only does away with the concept of a set. She does away with the concept of an audience.
The critics in London have ignored the colorblind casting - and in Walcott’s case as Mitch even, in doing so, seemed to have chosen, in the main, to ignore his brilliant performance as a result of such a cowardly averting of the critical gaze. Because Frecknall has cast three actors of color in important roles, it becomes so organic to the piece that when Blanche asks Stella for a dress of a specific color the dress she is handed is purposefully not that color. That is not an accident; it is a fleeting but important visual and aural signal that sinks in as we sink deeper ourselves into the organism she is creating. I talked to Walcott after the play one night and asked him if we were to see past his color as Mitch or if he were playing Mitch as a Black southern man since the accent he is so expertly employed was to my Mississippi ear that of a southern Black man. Walcott told me he was most definitely playing Mitch as a Black friend of Stanley. He also brings nuance and an anger to the role that I have never seen in Mitch before - plus, he’s also the most handsome Mitch I’ve come across. He can give Stanley a run for his bowling money regarding who’s the sexier. But Williams would have never ignored Mitch’s being Black in the text since Blanche and Stella are from Mississippi and southern to their core. It gives the romantic delusions of Blanche about Mitch another sociological - even political - layer that is not to be located in the play. Moreover, when Blanche screams “Fire!’ repeatedly when Mitch tries to take advantage of her after Stanley tells him the truth about Blanche’s past - a term that Williams used in the 1940s instead one presumes “Rape!” and Ferran’s frighteningly fiery delivery of it reinforces the perception that is exactly what is meant - gives it a whole other dangerous meaning when a White woman in New Orleans is screaming such a thing about a fleeing Black man. It speaks to Walcott’s brilliance, however, that these concerns become academic afterward and not in the experience of seeing him in the role. That is how good he is and how exquisite his work is with Ferran in their scenes. In many ways, Mitch is the most important role in the play because the whole action of it turns on his response to Blanche. Therefore, Frecknall’s casting a Black actor to play him cannot be ignored, as every critic I read in London did. It is a challenge to the part of the organism Frecknall has created that is the reimagined audience and our own role in her schematic take so that the dynamism of the challenge is as much a part of the life force of what she has conjured as the Blackness of Mitch himself. In a profound sense, Mitch’s Blackness is the breath of the piece, something seen yet unseen the way breath is as it gives form to lifelessness, the depicted gobbet of Frecknall’s design, defying dormancy, longing to be newly formed with another kind of life. This is not a revival of a Tennessee Williams play. It is a renewal.
(Above: Paul Mescal as Stanley and Patsy Ferran as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire which is moving to the Phoenix Theatre in the West End in March after its sold-out run at the Almeida Theatre. Photo by Mark Brenner.)
Frecknall’s most radical choice was casting Ferran as Blanche. A friend I admire opined that if she had thought Ferran were right for the role she would have initially cast her instead of an earlier actor she cast in the part who had to withdraw after sustaining a reported injury during rehearsal. But I am of the opinion that once the organism of this Streetcar began to take shape and to express its own agency and its own needs in the creative process that it was so radical a reimagining of the play that it demanded that Blanche DuBois had to be redefined, whether the reported injury were a cover story or the creation mystically caused it actually to happen. The term “miscast” was bandied about when theatre aficionados talked about the announcement of Ferran’s taking over the role. “She’s much more of a Stella,” I heard from others. Ferran certainly makes it clear in her stunning reexamination of the role that Blanche is pissed off that she is not Stella because Stella has figured out a way to incorporate carnality into her life without being labeled licentious, or even an outlaw, for doing so. Ferran’s Blanche longs to be Stella because she herself thinks she’s been miscast as herself and more suited to be her sister. That is different than being “more of a Stella.” That is deeper, darker, and, as an artistic impulse, a divine spark of reinterpretation. There is an anger I had never seen in a Blanche before, an at-a-clip clarity before the clutter of madness descends upon her mostly from Stella choosing to begin living her own false narrative in her purposeful disbelief of Blanche’s story about Stanley the night Stella was having their baby. There is also the knowing meanness of a manipulative alcoholic that Ferran finds in her Blanche. So many other Blanches I have seen - and I have seen Jessica Lange and Gillian Anderson and Cate Blanchette and Natasha Richarson onstage in the role - surrender to a dizzy and dizzying performative southernness that can be, by turns, earthy and etherial yet it’s always a singular spin on an accepted interpretation. There is so much flouncing and flitting that it can seem, yes, deranged. But there is not a flounce or flit in Ferran’s more feral take. Watching her with Mescal’s Stanley you sense his scent inside her nostrils and you wonder who exactly is the prey. Her beauty, unlike those clothes in her trunk, doesn’t come with buttons. It is bare. Unadorned. To the bone. She knows her way around another kind of zipper.
Ferran just might be the most present-in-the-moment actor I’ve ever witnessed and the friend I admire agreed with that but suggested, because of that, she seemed a bit lost in the reverie sections when she must recall the past. I think what he was picking up on was that Ferran was showing us in those sections within the organism that Frecknall has created the ghoulish, life-extinguishing part of her Blanche so that the characterization along with the organism goes into a kind of repose during those reveries, an unsteady stillness. Then the present suddenly springs prowlingly to life once more and she prowls right along with it. Most Blanches don’t blush at the poetry put in the character’s mouth but Ferran finds the linguistic facility part of the character’s fancy past and blows through a lot of it with a precision honed from hearing such language all her life and maybe finding it laughable. She doesn’t lounge around in it. And her Mississippi accent is flawless. Effortless. She is the finest of all the Blanches I’ve seen. Look at that list again up above in this paragraph to understand how truly great she is. Because she is so revelatory in the role this production is too.
(Above: George Maharis as Jerry and William Daniels as Peter in The Zoo Story, 1960.)
Back at that dinner party in Montauk, I was asked about my being an actor in my even younger days and what it was like to be in a production of Equus in Atlanta with George Maharis as Dr. Dysart to my Alan Strang. I glibly said that I had wished that he had had the courage to take off his toupee at that point in his life and do the part bald. “It would have made his performance less false.”
“All performances are false,” said Frankie. “That’s why they call them performances.”
She then excused herself to visit the loo yet again.
Edward stared at the empty place left at the table. “George Maharis was the original Jerry in The Zoo Story. To this day, it is still the greatest performance I have ever seen on a stage. There wasn’t a false moment in it,” he said into the emptiness his mother left before him. “She’s wrong again. Lucky for her, it’s the plays that are false.”
Lucky for us, Albee and Williams found our deeper truths in their falsities.
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