×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Night of the Iguana

There's a unique pleasure that comes late in the second act of Tennessee Williams' "The Night of the Iguana" when two lonely Williams souls sit back and talk. The encounter is a great one, and it's well-served in Anthony Page's uneven but occasionally inspired revival, which brings Woody Harrelson back to the London stage.

With:
Shannon - Woody Harrelson Maxine - Clare Higgins Hannah - Jenny Seagrove Nonno - John Franklyn-Robbins Charlotte Goodall - Jenna Harrison Judith Fellowes - Nichola McAuliffe

For a playwright whose characters are so often pitched at extremes, there’s a unique pleasure that comes late in the second act of Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana” when two characteristically damaged, lonely Williams souls sit back and talk. The encounter is a great one, and it’s well-served in Anthony Page’s uneven but occasionally inspired revival of this 1961 play, which brings Woody Harrelson back to the London stage. First-timers to this thorny if most temperate of Williams plays may resist the show’s longueurs, but those alive to its singular humanity will find much to savor.

The scene in question is the prolonged tete-a-tete between two American visitors to a hilltop Mexican retreat circa 1940: the defrocked priest Shannon (Harrelson), who talks of being at odds with God when he’s not jumping into bed with underage girls; and Hannah Jelkes (Jenny Seagrove), an itinerant artist busy wheeling her 97-year-old writer grandfather, Nonno (John Franklyn-Robbins), from one hotel to another as he pens his first poem in 20 years.

Has Hannah, a New England spinster pushing 40, ever known love, asks the hard-living, libidinous Shannon? Hannah answers with twin recollections that never fail to still a house. And so they do once more.

The language shows Williams at his most deeply, richly empathic. “Nothing human disgusts me unless it’s unkind, violent,” Hannah says of her self-described “love experience,” the character fully embodying the adage about still waters running deep. And against the odds, she finds the prospect of a soulmate right there in the form of the sweaty, self-doubting Shannon, who has cracked up before and surely will do so again.

While he hacks away at coconuts, the scene tears at the heart, abetted by two performers attuned to its momentous if mournful song.

Not all of “Iguana” is on this same exalted level, as has always been true of a play lacking the compact, gemlike majesty of “The Glass Menagerie” or the flaming psychic fury of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” But the London theater, to its credit, tends to embrace the lesser works of major American playwrights, with “Iguana” leading the charge: Richard Eyre’s 1992 National Theater revival of this play remains a high-water mark in recent reappraisals of Williams, in which a clearly haunted dramatist was seen anew as an abiding humanist.

Page’s production, by contrast, exists in the commercial sphere and has an eye on the bottom line in a way not required by Eyre’s. And yet, it would be wrong to judge Harrelson’s presence merely as a stunt cashing in on the constant West End avidity for Hollywood and TV names. Three years ago, Harrelson and Kyle MacLachlan appeared to diminishing returns (if good box office) in the all too aptly titled West End entry “On an Average Day.”

Shifting for the first time to the classic American canon, thesp shows a shrewd understanding of the quintessentially beleaguered Williams male, a man no less haunted by “the spook” than “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s” Brick is by “the click” in his head that brings with it peace.

The actor makes something bitterly funny out of Shannon’s adversarial relationship with the busload of traveling schoolteachers ready to have his head. And though the final preview saw him fumbling for the occasional line, the part marks a stretch Harrelson more than meets, his gift for improv helping him through some awkward stage business with a recalcitrant hammock.

Playing the more mysterious of the women who drift in and out of Shannon’s orbit, Seagrove might seem unfairly matched with Clare Higgins, inheriting Bette Davis’s original role as blowsy hotel proprietor Maxine. (As clothed — or not — by Anthony Ward, Higgins’ lady of the house looks forever in a state of semi-undress.) As might be expected, Higgins stakes a real claim for the newly widowed Maxine as a participant in the play’s landscape of grief, her scalding laugh suggesting itself as a defense against pain.

Seagrove, in turn, doesn’t possess the bottomless reserves of Eileen Atkins, who shone as Hannah in the Eyre production. But something about Seagrove’s natural reticence works to the advantage of the Buddha-like Hannah, who has lost her parents in a car crash and yet somehow carries on.

Rather like one of those Faulknerian talismans of endurance, Hannah uses patience as a scythe with which to forge her way through life. And when, at play’s finish, she makes a plea to God to stop, one feels the “end” embedded in the word endurance: death as both loss and release.

The Night of the Iguana

Lyric Theater, London; 924 Seats; £45 $78 Top

Production: A Bill Kenwright presentation of a play in two acts by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Anthony Page.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Anthony Ward; lighting, Mark Henderson; music, Dominic Muldowney; sound, Colin Pink. Opened Dec. 5, 2005. Reviewed Dec. 3. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast: Shannon - Woody Harrelson Maxine - Clare Higgins Hannah - Jenny Seagrove Nonno - John Franklyn-Robbins Charlotte Goodall - Jenna Harrison Judith Fellowes - Nichola McAuliffeWith: Peter Banks, Nancy Baldwin, Sean Power, Federico Zanni, Simon Kassianides.

More Legit

  • Hadestown review

    Broadway Review: 'Hadestown'

    “Hadestown” triggered a lot of buzz when this wholly American show (which came to the stage by way of a concept album) premiered at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop in 2016. Arriving on Broadway with its earthly delights more or less intact, this perfectly heavenly musical — with book, music and lyrics by Anaïs [...]

  • Burn This review

    Broadway Review: Adam Driver, Keri Russell in 'Burn This'

    The ache for an absent artist permeates Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This,” now receiving a finely-tuned Broadway revival that features incendiary performances by Adam Driver and Keri Russell, playing two lost souls in a powerful and passionate dance of denial. AIDS is never mentioned in this 1987 play, yet the epidemic and the profound grief that [...]

  • White Noise Suzan-Lori Parks

    Listen: The 'Dumb Joke' Hidden in 'White Noise'

    Suzan-Lori Parks’ new play “White Noise” tackles a host of urgent, hot-button topics, including racism and slavery — but, according to the playwright, there’s also a “dumb joke” buried in it. Listen to this week’s podcast below: Appearing with “White Noise” director Oskar Eustis on “Stagecraft,” Variety‘s theater podcast, Parks revealed that the inspiration for [...]

  • Adam Driver appears at the curtain

    Adam Driver on Starring in 'Burn This' for a Second Time

    The Hudson Theatre’s new production of “Burn This” marks its first Broadway revival since it premiered on the Great White Way in 1987, but Adam Driver is no stranger to the work. He starred as Pale in a Juilliard production of the Lanford Wilson drama when he was still a student — and only now, [...]

  • Alan Wasser

    Alan Wasser, Tony-Winning Broadway General Manager, Dies at 70

    Alan Wasser, a veteran Broadway general manager who received an honorary Tony Award, died from complications from Parkinson’s disease in New York on Sunday. He was 70. Wasser founded Alan Wasser Associates and general managed “Les Misérables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon,” three of the most successful productions of all time. He [...]

  • Aretha Franklin Clinton inauguration

    Pulitzer Prizes: Aretha Franklin, Trump Tax Cheating Story Honored

    Donald Trump will have something to hate tweet about this afternoon. The Pulitzer Prizes awarded two hard-hitting investigations into the 45th president during its annual ceremony on Monday. The New York Times earned a prize in explanatory reporting for an 18-month investigation into the elaborate steps that Trump and his family went to in an [...]

  • A German Life review

    London Theater Review: Maggie Smith in 'A German Life'

    How helpful are warnings from history? Two years ago, in February 2017, Amazon briefly sold out its entire stock of Hannah Arendt’s 500-page treatise, “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” In it, the German-born philosopher surveys the conditions that gave rise to Nazi rule, charting fascism’s incremental creep. Social shifts are slow, sometimes too slow to spot, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content