Sweet Bird of Youth
by Tennessee Williams
T. Shreiber Studio, NYC
February 15-March 18, 2007
Directed by Terry Schreiber
T. Shreiber Studio
The Way of All Youth
(according to Tennessee Williams)
At the center of Tennessee Williams’ play “Sweet Bird of Youth” is a middle-aged actress, the Princess Kosmopolis (Joanna Bayless), once glamorous, now with a touch of the slut about her. When the curtain came down on her show’s last performance she took up the bottle. Now it’s the morning after and she is in full flight from memory. She’ll never get another casting call; she played her one role and there is no other. She anticipates an endless present of drugs and sex, her only certain “distractions” from painful, vacant reality. Or so she thinks.
The hometown boy in her hotel room, Chance Wayne, is half her age, new to the game of gigolo, cute and common, but hardly the beauty of a movie star, the role he wants. She refers to his beauty as the sole source of his claim on an audition with her for a possible Hollywood role. “You got here because of your beauty, you may as well know it.” She dangles the lure, he snaps at it, though he adds a little belligerently, I’ve been conned enough times to be suspicious of a con. She counters drily with: “It takes one to know one.”
This Chance, Eric Watson Williams, affects an open, rather vacuous face that looks untouched by experience. Very appropriate for the vain boy just beginning to learn how to play himself. But if someone said that Williams wrote the part for Paul Newman–the dates don’t work out as the play premiered on Broadway in 1959– few would argue. The part made Newman as an actor; he defined that moody, sullen attitude that made his beauty dangerous, perhaps even more than the lines say. More, Newman’s undeniable sex appeal put his final stamp on the role and it’s ineradicable. Actors contend with their predecessors; great performances are benchmarks.
Williams did not refer much to “Sweet Bird” in his Memoirs, and it falls short in characterization and in dramaturgy of his great accomplishment, “Streetcar Named Desire.” The plays are comparable only in that they feature actresses, Blanche Dubois and Princess, both faded, both sad, their theatrical sense of themselves reflected in their pretentious names. Williams apparently experimented with this type, giving her first an edge of satire, much as if Princess was a rough cut for the far more subtle and touching Blanche. The Princess waves her empty liquor bottle over her head loudly demanding more; Blanche to the contrary suffers from acute self consciousness of her failings including a secret turn to drink. The Princess spells out her need for the “distraction” of sex with Chance; Blanche may know desire but shrinks from Kowalski’s aggressive sexuality.
The cast for this production by the Terry Schreiber Studio is first rate and the direction by Terry Schreiber seamless. There is a moment when the frail Aunt Nonnie (Margo Goodman) looks as if she might topple in the breeze made by casual movement of the vigorous young man that she alone welcomes back to town. Such physical contrasts among the actors made for a visually interesting stage. But the play is essentially a simple action of return to beginnings. Chance brings the Princess to visit to his hometown of St. Cloud (nice name for a fantasy place). Her money and glamor may underwrite his illusions, his daydreams of easy success. He also intends to pursue a harebrained His and Hers beauty contest that he and his hometown girl Heavenly Finley will win. The pot will set him up for a new start in life.
None of this happens, of course; everyone knows “you can’t go home again.” But it’s interesting that Chance stands apart from his physical perfection so unselfconsciously, seeing and not seeing himself as a commodity. From the opposite point of view, Chance would take a gamble and enact his name. It tells that his identity has no ballast; he belongs to the paying customer and Princess writes out his travelers checks. Perhaps the number of ways Williams will exploit the theme of prostitution in his works begin with “Sweet Bird.” But it’s the related theme that holds power in St. Cloud. The town knows Chance as the boy who deflowered Big Man Finley’s daughter, and so is responsible for having her sent to hospital for a mysterious operation, and skipped out on punishment. The Princess reminds him that penalty would be nothing less than castration; and both they and we are shocked by the mere sound of the word. St. Cloud, nay the South, is a more primitive place than we may recognize. (The play is set “somewhere on the Gulf Coast”) “Sweet Bird” raises the specter of imaginary reprisals arising from violence and horror. In a way, the text’s unspoken reference to brutal events recalls Blanche’s evasive strategies with sexuality in “Streetcar.” Williams’s handling of the subject is elliptical, allusive, suggestive.
Chance nags the Princess to telephone a great gossip columnist–in Williams’ time the power of publicity still lay with newspapers–to introduce him and Heavenly into Hollywood’s inner circle. Instead, we learn from the Princess’s lines on the phone that her film has “broken box-office records” and she is still on top. She need not ingratiate herself by offering Hollywood “a beach-boy [I] picked up for pleasure, distraction from panic.” She does not need him at all, except to walk out of the hotel with her since they arrived together and she wants to keep her image straight in the town’s mind. But he remains behind at the hotel. Time, at last, has caught up with the game of riding on her renown: he cannot go on with her. He’s spent his youth and now “something’s got to mean something.”
This is more emphatic in report than it was onstage. At times, this Chance, Eric Watson Williams, almost backed away from the role in choosing to underplay Chance’s sexuality, his sine qua non. This left a curious vacancy in the performance; he was not quite there (in Gertrude Stein’s sense of “thereness”), or perhaps better, he did not inhabit the role. Watson left his prettiness to fend for itself. Joanna Bayless (The Princess), to the contrary, was very much “on” and to good effect. Hers is the tricky part, calling for her to be at once worldly and appealing. Her wry tone of voice implies that she still can recover from her “condition,” otherwise “over the hill.” If anything, Bayless might have benefitted from a bit more of the common touch. It’s morning, Easter Morning, with all the symbolism of renewal, and she’s drinking, yet we know her narrow- eyed self appraisal directs her, drunk or sober. She’s a survivor.
At curtain up, the balance of power lies with Chance: he is clear-eyed, certainly remembers last night, and holds the original of contracts the Princess signed giving him a screen test. Eventually he realizes with dismay that the papers are phony and she admires his perceptiveness. She almost welcomes him to the con’s inner circle. Church bells are ringing out during his “rebirth” from innocence into experience and it takes instant effect. Princess goes off to her next gig while he for the first time takes a stand alone.
Quite apart from their excellent performances, these characters fall short of full dimensionality. Williams seems in this early play to be caught up instead in the violence and horrors of his town, St. Cloud, tightly run by Boss Finley–the name says it all. Chance learns Finley’s gang is out for him and has warned the Princess of imminent danger. Finley represents a nightmarish exaggeration of a law and order racist on a mission from god to purify the South. It seems that after Chance left town a black man suspected of rape was castrated; and Chance’s girlfriend, Heavenly Finley, had to be “spayed like a dawg”; other obscenities are hinted at. He watches on television in horror as a heckler of Boss Finley’s campaign speech is dragged out and beaten nearly to death by Finley’s mob. The television program, by the way, provides a patch of theater within theater in an otherwise straightforward dramatic structure.
The secondary characters, all eighteen of them, perform admirably and production values were excellent. A set comprised of subtly colored hanging curtains separating up and down stage also created an elegant, satin bedroom for Acts I and 3. Equally splendid visually, the Princess in Act I wore a classically cut satin robe. Incidental music was beautifully performed at the piano by Anthony Aibel.
“Sweet Bird of Youth” by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Terry Schreiber at the T. Schreiber Studio, New York. Scenic Design, Hal Tine; Lighting Design, Andrea Boccanfuso; Costume. Karen Ann Ledger. Featuring Eric Watson Williams (Chance Wayne); Joanna Bayless (Princess); Kelvin Cameron (Fly); Morgan Foxworth (George Scudder); others