by Lynn on October 19, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Hart House Theatre until Oct. 22, 2011. Written by James Cunningham and Martin Hunter. Directed by David Ferry. Set and costumes by Glenn Davidson. Video Designed by Bernard Leroux. Sound by Verne Good. Starring: Nigel Bennett, Allegra Fulton, Carmen Grant, Harrison Thomas.

It’s an interesting coincidence that two plays about American playwright Tennessee Williams are now playing in Toronto. Both plays deal with Williams when he is down on his luck and success is eluding him. His Greatness by Daniel MacIvor (at Factory Theatre until Oct. 23) is elegantly written, full of wit, poetry, full bodied characters and captures the snap, crackle and sadness of Williams. I’ve already covered this in my blog.

The Gentleman Caller by James Cunningham and Martin Hunter, which they have been working on since 2001 and has been workshopped in Toronto, Stratford and New York; opened tonight at Hart House Theatre. It is dreadful. The writing is leaden, the characters are ill-defined and the attempt to make this play like a dream, memory and hallucination is clumsy.

The Gentleman Caller takes place in the Elysee Hotel in New York City. One night Williams is surprised when a hustler burst into his room from the fire escape as he tries to avoid the police who are chasing him. A not so subtle ‘dance’ of seduction begins with both trying to come on to the other. The Hustler says Williams looks familiar. Williams says he’s Earnest Hemmingway. The Hustler wants to be an actor and hopes that his ‘writer friend’ can help him in that endeavor.

In the meantime, Williams is haunted by the specter and memory-come-to-life of the two major influences in his life: his fragile minded sister Rose and his not so gracious mother, Miss Edwina. Cunningham and Hunter use this situation to suggest where some of Williams’ most vivid writing comes from. So “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” (from A Streetcar Named Desire) they imagine comes from an especially wonderful blow-job Williams experienced years before. The harping “Rise and Shine” in The Glass Menagerie apparently was how Williams’ mother woke up the family every day.

The Hustler at times takes on the guise of the Gentleman Caller in Williams’ hallucinations and dreams. When the Hustler realizes Williams’ true identity he tells him that he played the Gentleman Caller in high school. Strange how he didn’t initially recognize the writer of the play. The play gets blurry when it’s hard to tell if that young man is the Hustler or the Gentleman Caller, and downright incredulous when the Hustler berates Williams for depicting Rose in various plays in a less than flattering light. So at one point the Hustler can’t tell what Tennessee Williams looks like and at another point he has a deep enough knowledge of Williams’ plays to tell when Rose is being referenced unfavourably. Ridiculous.

David Ferry who is a good director and his notable cast try valiantly to lift this dud of a play off the ground. Designer Glenn Davidson has swathed the set in white draping curtains and covered furniture, giving the production a sense of hazy memory. Scenes from films based on Williams’ plays are projected onto the curtain with little effect because we can’t see them clearly—the curtains are a mass of folds and the projections are distorted.

As Tennessee Williams, Nigel Bennett doesn’t approach the languid aspect of the writer, or even his lilting drawl. As Miss Edwina, Allegra Fulton has the right haughtiness, gentility, and steel needed to suggest that carping, difficult woman. Rose is a confusion of strength and fragility. If Rose Williams was anything it’s fragile, both in mind and spirit. The writing sometimes made her seem almost normal. That said, Carmen Grant does Herculean work trying to sort out this confusion. As the Hustler, young Harrison Thomas seems uncomfortable in the role. He’s only in his second year at Ryerson University’s Performance Acting Program. It’s only fair to cut him some slack. I look forward to seeing him in a better written play.

It’s a daunting task to write about a great writer such as Tennessee Williams and explore some aspect of his creative life. Because of a lack of even a scintilla of creativity and writing ability James Cunningham and Martin Hunter were completely overwhelmed. If you want to know deep down what Tennessee Williams was like, read his plays. The Gentleman Caller doesn’t come close.

The Gentleman Caller plays at Hart House Theatre until Oct. 22, 2011.

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