A hitherto unseen play by Tennessee Williams opened the White Barn’s 2001 season, and now the late Lucille Lortel’s country playhouse is presenting a play about the celebrated Southern author. The cast and director Burry Fredrik serve the play well in its premiere production.
David Foley has done a commendable job of capturing the voice of Williams, which is familiar from his published letters. He has clearly tried to make “Sad Hotel” sound as though Williams himself wrote it. But the play’s other central role, Williams’ lover Frank Merlo, is damagingly underwritten.
Set in a house on the Florida coast airily evoked by designer Leo B. Meyer, both acts of the play opens in 1970, seven years after Merlo’s death, with a tight spotlight illuminating the face of Williams as he speaks directly to the audience.
He is just out of a “loony bin,” deeply compromised by pill-popping and booze. He’s also trying to cope with the failure of his latest plays, busily blaming critics, producers and his long-suffering agent Audrey Wood.
The Williams-Merlo story unfolds in flashbacks to the years 1961-63. Their 15-year relationship was ruptured when Williams drove away Merlo by bringing another young man into their home. The relationship is resumed briefly when Merlo returns home to die.
There are some moments of Southern Gothic melodrama, as when a crying Williams hurls himself at the feet of the dying Merlo to beg forgiveness. Much of the dialogue is lushly Southern-decadent, with many tasty lines.
In the central role, Tsoutsouvas captures the right accent and touch of effeminacy. He works tirelessly, though he does sometimes over-orate. But a basic problem of writing about the aging Williams is that it’s hard to feel sorry for a man who was so sorry for himself, so full of self-pity, self-hatred and self-absorption.
Merlo is played by newcomer Omar Prince, who bears a resemblance to him but isn’t a strong enough actor to paper over the gaps in the role left by playwright Foley.
In addition to failing to evoke a dimensional Merlo, Foley has brought in two characters who further unbalance his play: Kit, a drunken, blocked writer whose husband is off sleeping with men, flavorfully played by Angela Pietropinto; and “cousin” Mary (an attractive Gwendolyn Lewis), a youngish married woman with children who spends much of her time institutionalized. Both characters overshadow Merlo, whom the playwright fails to bring to life before killing him off.