The British theater’s adventurous trawl through the Tennessee Williams repertoire gets derailed (only momentarily, let us hope) with the arrival in London of “Baby Doll,”a stage version of Williams’ 1956 screenplay in a production first seen last fall at the Birmingham Rep.
Miscast — sometimes painfully so — in all but the smallest of its four central roles, Lucy Bailey’s staging botches whatever case might be made for one of Williams’ pulpier scenarios in a script that has its origins in a short story-turned-play, a one-act effort entitled “27 Wagons Full of Cotton.” (Trivia buffs should note that “Cotton’s” last Broadway airing in 1976 garnered a Tony nod for then-unknown Meryl Streep.) But the curiosity value of the text aside, it’s this production’s determinedly tin ear that proves most peculiar. Perhaps so much attention was given to the astonishing visuals that no one bothered to attend to the staging’s aural components.
As it is, connoisseurs of amazing British designs will want to make a beeline for the Lyttelton, where Bunny Christie’s scenic contribution seems light years (and, presumably, budgets) away from her uninspired work on the concurrent London musical “Poison.” Beginning with intriguingly filmic, shutter-like images of the decaying manse in which the barely post-pubescent Baby Doll (Charlotte Emmerson) lives with her boozy and begrimed husband, Archie Lee (Paul Brennen), the stage then opens on to a floor-to-ceiling vista of the rotting American South, complete with at least 27 wagons full of cotton piled high to the rear of the (purposefully) rotting set.
This extraordinary scenic coup runs the risk of swamping the actors, but Christie’s designs nonetheless evoke a sense of period, climate and place found nowhere else in the evening. “The floor is weak,” Baby Doll remarks at one point , as she prepares to give her flesh over to local plantation manager Silva Vacarro (Jonathan Cake). But the design — Chris Davey’s elegant lighting included — exerts its own robust fascination at the sight of a quintessential Williams hotbed opened right up to the heavens.
Everything else reeks of English constriction, notwithstanding token attempts at ambient flavor that here consist mostly of awful cornpone accents (the worst stabs at American encountered in London since “Whistle Down the Wind”) and the occasional (and inevitable) nod in the direction of Brando — Silva forever dousing himself with water from the onstage pump, as if a wet T-shirt by itself were enough to compensate for the production’s lack of sexual heat. Cake has the proper physique for the part — not always easy to find when casting Williams in England — but not the necessary danger or charge to play a Southerner of Sicilian origin with claims on his rival’s nymphet-like wife. (His second-act seduction of Baby Doll is staged, bizarrely, like a Keystone Kops routine.)
And yet, if he seems too brainy for what is in effect a brawn-driven assignment, Cake is at least circling within the part’s orbit, which is more than can be said for newcomer Emmerson in the title role, whose self-evident hesitations pertain far more to the actress than to the character. It’s not just that Emmerson hasn’t an iota of Carroll Baker’s Lolita-ish allure from the film; she’s just not up to a part that, or so Silva maintains, is the embodiment of the cotton that fuels the economy — where one wants a soft and fleshy ripeness in keeping with some uncharacteristically lame Williams repartee about squeezing lemons, Emmerson seems to have been pulled taut: “I’m gettin’ so hot,” she drawls, while looking totally cold.
As the vindictive “fat ol’ thing” of a husband (the Karl Malden role from the movie), a man whose vengeful ways anticipate the not dissimilar plotting of Williams’ “Orpheus Descending,” written the next year (and to be revived here later this one), Brennen would be about right for a bus-and-truck tour of “Killer Joe.” But it’s emblematic of what’s gone awry that his humiliating fate at the hands of both his community and his child-bride drew scattered laughs at the performance caught.
It’s left, then, to Georgine Anderson’s lovely, low-key turn as Aunt Rose Comfort to quietly steal the production, playing a woman clinging to her perch — and her porch — amid a household that doesn’t want her. Actually, on this evidence, she’s probably better off without them.