With friends like helmer Rick Shaw and thesp Curt Bonnem, Tennessee Williams will have to depend on the kindness of strangers. They done him wrong in Gregg Ostrin’s new play “Kowalski,” an evocation of the young Marlon Brando (Ignacio Serricchio) in his 1947 audition for “A Streetcar Named Desire,” famously held after hours in the playwright’s Provincetown getaway. Brando himself is satisfyingly etched, but the steely yet fragile soul of the incomparable “Bird,” as he was known, never makes an appearance on the Two Roads stage.
Factual liberties aren’t the problem. At the time Williams was much more of a theatrical renegade than presented here, one who surely would have known of (and likely met) the prominent up-and-comer with four major Gotham credits behind him. But Ostrin is intent on a confrontation between Establishment Broadway and the fresh breeze of Stanislavskian realism, so you go along with Williams’ clueless, Alfred Lunt-like hauteur as he mistakes the young visiting thesp for an intruder and amateur.
You also don’t mind going along with Serricchio, who gets Brando’s mumbling, the ambivalent sexuality, the observing intelligence masked by thuggish unconcern. Though much more conventionally handsome than the famous star, Serricchio makes it easy to conjure up the lord of the Elysian Fields bowling lanes. As he alternately mauls, chides and sweet-talks current flame Jo (lovely, gawky Sasha Higgins, making the most of limited stage time), we can see how he will manipulate Stella and Blanche with cruel, careless whim.
But the contest is unbalanced when Williams is directed exclusively as a blustery comic foil. In appearance and mannerism, in every respect but accent, Bonnem’s performance is indistinguishable from John Hillerman’s Higgins in “Magnum: PI.” And a flat affect, arch readings and outraged eye-rolls are no way to convey surging emotion when discussing a sister’s mental illness, or the possibility of producer Irene Selznick’s sabotaging “Streetcar” with improper casting.
Much of the time a cat-and-mouse game is at work among scribe, thesp and girlfriend, and we see how it’s supposed to go as Brando toys with others’ desires and Jo finally, rudely realizes how she’s being played. But when the third leg of a stool is absent, all it can do is topple over, which is which happens to “Kowalski” as Bonnem expostulates and nags with no sense of scheming beneath.