If an unknown scribe had written “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel,” it might have been praised. The play shines an undeniable light on the chasm between spiritual ambition and carnal need, and there are times when the central characters — a debilitated painter and his lonely, desperate wife — express their anguish with poetry worthy of Tennessee Williams. But since Williams is actually the playwright, and since this 1969 curio is much less accomplished than his earlier masterpieces, it has been largely forgotten. Flaws aside, the current revival by White Horse Theater proves the play is worth remembering.
The play is an experiment in overt symbolism. Sexually repressed Miriam (Laura Siner) lingers in the titular lounge, seducing the Japanese barman and turning to the audience to explicitly define her crisis. “I’m fully aware, of course, that there’s no magical trick to defend me indefinitely from the hideous product of calendars, clocks, watches,” she tells us.
With her snuffbox filled with suicide capsules and her tendency for grabbing the bartender’s crotch, Miriam could be the ultimate image of decaying sexuality in a Williams play. More blatantly, though, she’s the literal other half of her husband, Mark (Niall O’Hegarty), who’s on the verge of collapse while trying to teach himself a more modern style of painting.
The couple’s furious arguments — mostly about who’s inflicting the most damage on whom — are like the struggles of a soul unable to reconcile artistic passion with physical need. Awkwardly wed, lust and inspiration are destroying one another.
As in earlier experiments such as “Camino Real,” Williams fractures language to enhance the unrealistic mood. Many phrases are cut off, leaving their most important words unspoken. The device creates a tantalizing hole in the dialogue, urging us to fill it with our own understanding of what Mark and Miriam mean.
This tactic points to the play’s success in making palpable moments out of emotional concepts. Williams never quite integrates his metaphors with action — the play becomes motionless as Miriam and Mark keep repeating themselves — but his insights are still worth hearing.
White Horse’s production, though, amplifies the script’s inaction more than its beauty. As though afraid we’ll miss the message, director Cyndy A. Marion makes every moment heavy and slow. Actors put pauses between almost every line, killing tension instead of adding emphasis. Meanwhile, designers trowel on overwrought mood lighting and whispery wind-chime sound effects.
Yes, the chimes are in the original script, but the effect would be clear without such heavy-handed treatment.
Likewise, Marion and O’Hegarty could trust the language to evince Mark’s broken spirit without their blunt interpretive assistance. During every moment he’s onstage, O’Hegarty convulses. He can’t even walk to a chair without collapsing and twitching like a fish.
And while Williams does make reference to the character’s trembling, a few stage directions don’t necessitate this hell-bent commitment to shaking. If he sat still, thesp might find other, more interesting ways to communicate an inner collapse.
Set designer Patrick Larsen proves the value of reserve. His bar is dotted with references to the text that are gentle yet easily understood. Miriam, for instance, yearns to live in a “circle of light,” and the lanterns in the bar are lights hovering inside paper circles. These touches enhance the play without calling attention to their own insightfulness. They let Williams speak for himself.