The most nakedly personal of American playwrights, Tennessee Williams, like all great artists, emerges as a vivid personality through his work and the themes in which he trafficked — loneliness and desperation; love, longing, sex and passion; the fragility of hope and beauty; the brutal inevitability of time. Given that the writer’s ghost hovers throughout “Five by Tenn,” director Michael Kahn’s employment of Williams as an interstitial narrator for this slight but revealing quintet of one-act curios seems redundant and perhaps out of character for a man who believed his plays speak for themselves.
First performed earlier this year in a slightly different lineup as part of the Kennedy Center’s “Tennessee Williams Explored” festival, the plays are like intriguing but unpolished drafts. They include four recently discovered works, two of them world-premiering in this respectable MTC presentation.
Three of the plays were written in the late 1930s, when Williams was in his 20s, prior to his breakthrough with “The Glass Menagerie.” A fourth, “And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens,” is from 1959. The playwright’s only openly gay-themed work, its main characters are a love-starved, self-sacrificial drag queen and a thuggish sailor, who appear like descendants of Blanche and Stanley in the earlier “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Final entry is the previously seen two-hander “I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow,” a stark chamber piece written in 1970 during a period of depression.
None of the plays is a masterwork by any stretch, bearing pallid outlines of Williams’ unmistakable brush strokes. But they provide insight into the evolution of the writer — his incisive definition of character, aching sense of compassion and thorny wit; the co-existence in his work of fierceness and tenderness; the taste for refined melodrama; and love of the lyrical nuances of language.
Kahn — artistic director of D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater, which first staged the program and his solid cast make a case for even minor Williams plays meriting a place onstage. However, anyone expecting the kind of enhancement to Williams’ canon represented by the rediscovery five years ago of “Not About Nightingales” will be disappointed.
The first and most autobiographical piece is “Summer at the Lake” (performed in D.C. as “Escape”), centering on an overbearing, selfish mother with a nervous condition and her sensitive, haunted son, who clearly foreshadow Amanda and Tom in “The Glass Menagerie.”
Another early work, “The Fat Man’s Wife,” offers a different blueprint of the classic Williams woman to come. A jaded New York society matron in a loveless marriage to a philandering theatrical producer, Vera receives an unexpected, confronting offer of happiness from a smitten young playwright after some “accidental osculation” at a New Year’s Eve party.
The influence of D.H. Lawrence on Williams is acknowledged in the amusing sketch “Adam and Eve on a Ferry,” in which a cranky, wheelchair-bound British writer badgers romantic revelations out of a visiting American woman pained by a missed opportunity for love.
The two most substantial pieces are “Queens” and “Tomorrow.” Former is a predictable but enjoyably florid episode set in New Orleans’ French Quarter, and focusing on Candy, a flamboyant 35-year-old gay man given to Veronica Lake leisure wear and recently dumped by his sugar daddy for fresher chicken.
“Just imagine this country without queens in it. It would be absolutely barbaric,” coos Candy. While many flyover-state voters would seem not to agree,Williams and talented actor Cameron Folmar find heart and poignancy in what could have been merely a grotesque caricature as Candy’s undignified plea for love plays out against the violent certainty that his rough-trade Karl will exploit and abuse him.
Somewhat jarring in its use of a stylized idiom that doesn’t come naturally to the playwright, “Tomorrow” nonetheless is an unsettling portrait of emotional isolation, told through two people paralyzed by their fears yet tentatively looking to each other for contact.
As the more physically frail but emotionally fortified of the two, the graceful Kathleen Chalfant excels at presenting the brittle armature of a broken woman. Opposite her, versatile David Rasche plays a schoolteacher so crippled by his fears he is unable to complete sentences. The actor’s sad-eyed bereftness contrasts remarkably with his feisty antagonism as Lawrence and his bloated arrogance as Vera’s lard-ass louse of a husband.
Having played Williams in his one-man “Talking Tennessee” show, Jeremy Lawrence — a D.C. cast member, like Chalfant and Folmar — is an able impersonator with the playwright’s loquacious drawl and Southern flirtatiousness down pat. But the elementary linking device, with Williams reading stage directions and — in excerpts from his memoirs and interviews — tracing parallels between his life and writing feels too literal, stretching an already protracted evening to three hours.
Briskly reconfigured by the cast for each play, James Noone’s stylish sets describe, with varying levels of detail, a lakeside cottage; a swanky Manhattan apartment; the overdecorated, Japanese-style home of a flaming decor queen; and the terrace of an Alpes-Maritimes villa. Only the attempt to create an unadorned void for “Tomorrow” is unconvincingly rendered.