Kennedy Center embarks on major Williams fest

The Kennedy Center has a tough act to follow this summer — itself.

Two years ago Michael Kaiser, the center’s artistic chief, got the D.C. mainstay back into the theater-producing business in a big way, with a marathon presentation of six Stephen Sondheim musicals.

The expensive gamble paid off, with the Gotham critics who shuttled down for openings mostly liking what they saw. The festival was virtually sold out, too.

How do you top that?

The short answer is, you don’t. After taking a summer off, the Kennedy Center returns to legit producing this summer with a tribute to another American master, Tennessee Williams. But it’s a more modest proposition, at least logistically.

Running from April 21-Aug. 8, the tribute features productions of Williams’ top-tier classics — “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “The Glass Menagerie” — and an evening of mostly unproduced one-acts, which kicked off the proceedings with an April 22 opening (see review, page 73).

Whereas the Sondheim festival featured concurrent runs, with as many as three musicals in rep at the same time, the Williams productions will run consecutively. “Streetcar” opens May 13 (previews from May 8) and runs through May 30, followed by “Cat” (June 12-July 4, opening June 17) and “Menagerie” (July 17-Aug. 8, opening July 22).

The budget is $5 million, compared to the $11 million for the Sondheim season.

The more modest scale is a reflection of Kaiser’s savvy assessment of what the market will bear: While Williams is one of the American theater’s greatest artists, he doesn’t have the kind of fanatical following that drew Sondheim-lovers from the four corners of the earth two summers ago. A spokesman said advance ticket sales have been brisk, although he would not cite figures. But he admitted the fest is not drawing the numbers Sondheim did.

But for the Kennedy Center, the retrospective has several layers of significance. For starters, it represents a long-awaited return by the center to the production of straight plays. The last in which the center shared any production credit was the Broadway-bound “A Few Good Men” in 1989 under its founding chieftain, Roger L. Stevens.

And the center has a history with Williams. In the 1970s it presented three of his plays and in 1978, the second year of the Kennedy Center Honors, he was a recipient.

Kaiser says he is committed to returning the center to theater production. “But we will do it in a careful way,” he says.

For example, it has no plans to establish a resident company. “One of the great flexibilities we have here is that no two seasons have to look alike,” he says. “It is a tremendous advantage not to be forced into a mold.”

Next season, the center will stage a single play, a revival of “Mr. Roberts.” (It also will mount a revival of tuner “Bye Bye Birdie” in a Broadway-bound co-production with Manny Kladitis.)

For now, attention will focus on the quality of the Williams marathon. As with its Sondheim festival, the center has lined up a top-notch collection of artists lured by the high-profile opportunity and the brief commitments.

Directors Garry Hynes, Mark Lamos and Gregory Mosher have been signed to stage “Streetcar,” “Cat” and “Menagerie,” respectively. Indie film doyenne and recent Oscar nominee Patricia Clarkson will undertake the iconic role of Blanche DuBois. Two-time Oscar winner Sally Field does the same with “Menagerie’s” Amanda Wingfield. The production of “Cat” lost its initial Brick, “Angels in America’s” Patrick Wilson, to a film offer. Now Jeremy Davidson will play Brick opposite Mary Stuart Masterson, Dana Ivey, George Grizzard and Emily Skinner.

The festival got off to a promising start, with reviews for “Five by Tenn,” directed by Shakespeare Theater a.d. Michael Kahn, largely positive. The Washington Post’s Peter Marks said, “Like an assortment of inviting appetizers, they emit delicate aromas suggesting potential banquets yet to come.” The AP’s Michael Kuchwara praised the program as “fascinating” in its hints of future Williams masterworks.

But the real test comes with “Streetcar.” For one thing, it is alone among the fest’s offerings in standing a chance of an ongoing life — on Broadway, specifically. “Cat” was revived last fall in New York — in a badly received production. And plans have already been announced for a separate “Menagerie” on Broadway next season, toplining Jessica Lange.

But the Great White Way hasn’t seen Williams’ most acclaimed play since Lange herself starred alongside Alec Baldwin in 1992. Should Clarkson & Co. garner raves, Broadway could be hosting a mini Williams festival next season.

But Kaiser, who came up with the idea for the summer festival, points to artistic, not commercial, reasons for the undertaking.

“Just as it was with Sondheim, it is again time to look at some of his great works,” he says. “We all feel we know these plays well, but what we tend to remember are the iconic images such as Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. One forgets that ‘Streetcar’ is remarkably good and fresh today.”

He also believes the juxtaposition of Williams’ major plays will bring deeper insights into the artists. “My hope is that in an impressionistic way, one gets a real sense of him.”

Two decades after his death, Williams remains as singular a figure as ever in America’s theatrical history. This Variety scribe vividly recalls the 1980 world premiere at the Kennedy Center of “Clothes for a Summer Hotel,” Williams’ ghost play that exhumed the tortured memories of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

It was a flop, and Williams’ last Broadway play during his life. As the Eisenhower Theater audience sat unresponsive through the largely inscrutable work, the stillness was occasionally broken by piercing shrieks of laughter from one patron dressed in a full-length fur coat. Who could that have been?

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