Through August 3 at the Yale Summer Cabaret, 217 Park Street, New Haven. (203) 432-1567, www.yalecabaret.org
By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Chris Bannow. Scenic Designer: Seth Bodie. Costume Designer: Kate Noll. Lighting Designer: Oliver Wason. Sound Designer/Production Manager/Technical Director: James Lanius. Assistant Technical Director: Joey Moro.
As the Yale Summer Cabaret’s very welcome production of In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel proves, the supposedly weakest phases of Tennessee Williams’ four-decade playwriting career are stronger than many playwrights’ heydays.
Williams’ work challenged audiences and critics, and it took the creation of Off Broadway and the regional and college theater systems until he could be properly appreciated again following his Broadway successes of the 1940s and ‘50s
It’s funny to see a well-formed “minor” work such as Tokyo Hotel and think “Oh, it feels like Harold Pinter.” Pinter’s own career had a rocky start in the early ‘60s and took a few years to solidify. Williams was plumbing similar ground of depression and alienation in an increasingly disjointed society. There’s the same sort of bellowing and belligerence, mixed with calm-before-the-storm pauses. On the other hand, the scenario here isn’t so far off from well-made-playwrights such as Terrence Rattigan, who in the ‘60s were struggling with the new freedom they had to insert pressing social issues into their cocktail-fueled melodramas.
What exactly happens in that bar of a Tokyo Hotel is that a marriage disintegrates, an artist unravels, and a woman must assert herself so strongly in order to make herself heard that an explosive climax is guaranteed. This is a talky play, but not a boring one, thanks to how the young and attractive four-person cast throw themselves into it. There’s a lot of drunkenness in the play, but it’s not just the embarrassing-outburst kind. It’s the dangerously-staggering kind. Tables are knocked over. So are people. Did I mention Pinter? Add Sam Shepard.
Despite Tokyo Hotel’s hard-won realism and difficult themes, director Chris Bannow and a game Yale Summer Cabaret cast were smart to not impose too strong of a concept on their production. In their characterizations and rhythms and spatiality, they’ve seemed to just go where the script took them. Turns out that it’s a place not so very far from the surrealistic landscape of the Summer Cabaret’s previous show, Federico Garcia Lorca’s The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife. Taking a Williams play into fantastical realms isn’t a cop-out; one of the playwright’s best works, Camino Real, is a dream play, and Gordon Edelstein’s recent revival of Glass Menagerie showed the merit of distancing, illusion and ghostly shadowing in approaching Williams’ viscerally emotional drama.
The cast here is juggling several styles, which could be confusing but instead invigorates the proceedings. There’s a sense of ‘60s hipsterism and experimentalism in the colorful costumes and muted lighting, exemplified by Celeste Aria angular and antic portrayal of the bitter, and bitters-imbing wife Miriam. There’s absurdism in some of the characterizations, especially with Mitchell Winter (an all-purpose European in many of the Yale School of Drama and Cabaret shows he’s been in) as a Japanese native. Then there’s the rocking realism of Mickey Theis as Mark the artist, coming off as both artistic and volatile.
The Yale Summer Cabaret 2013 season may have been modeled on the old-school summer stock system. But the company has shown more risk and daring than is commonly associated with summer stock, and has really thrown itself into difficult works, striving to understand and update them. That zeal will continue next week with a double-bill of Carol Churchill dramas.