Beware historical dramas about playwrights!
Yes, there are successful examples aplenty of plays about artists — such as Peter Schaffer’s play-turned-Oscar-winning film “Amadeus,” or John Logan’s “Red,” about painter Mark Rothko — but plays about playwrights are particularly tricky, for one is competing with the subjects’ own work. Why should you see a play about — in the case of the world premiere now at Raven Theatre — Tennessee Williams and William Inge, rather than a play by one of them?
The Gentleman Caller ★★1/2 When: Through May 27 Where: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Ave. Tickets: $38 – $46 Info: raventheatre.com Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
Philip Dawkins sets his two-person “The Gentleman Caller” in late 1944, just before and after the premiere of Williams’ first success, “The Glass Menagerie.” Williams, played with irrepressible wit and a convincing Southern drawl by Rudy Galvan, serves as a narrator, making this a biographical memory play like “The Glass Menagerie,” which had “The Gentleman Caller” as a working title? Inge, who would go on to write such popular works as “Picnic” and “Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” is writing about the arts for a St. Louis newspaper, and the still-obscure Williams visits Inge’s apartment for a scheduled interview, hoping for some positive press.
The historical basis of this does reflect reality. Williams and Inge did meet and did become friends; Williams has long been credited with encouraging Inge to write plays. But this simple fact of a relationship proves thin source material for a full-length work.
Dawkins emphasizes character commonalities and differences. Both were, for example, overly heavy drinkers, so throughout this play they drink heavily (set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec re-purposes an art-deco inspired bar for both Inge’s fussy apartment in the first act and Williams’ unkempt hotel room in the second). They also were both gay, and that issue becomes a key focus. Williams was, rebelliously, more public about it, while Inge, at the time of the play and after, was closeted. As Inge, Curtis Edward Jackson finds a lot of effective ways to signal extreme closeted discomfort: He paces, he clenches his jaw, and in fits of self-hatred, he seems about to burst with internalized rage. His sexual repression explodes a few times, starting early on, but his competing impulses continue to play out in his own ambivalent interest in Williams, to whom he seems at times attracted and at times repulsed.
Even more importantly than their sexuality, and – as Williams explains – related to it, the two have in common their desire to be writers. Williams simply couldn’t stop writing if he wanted to; Inge’s gradual embracing of this identity becomes the play’s only real change, and the best moment occurs when, after lots of discussion about the internal torture of exposing one’s art to public criticism, Inge retrieves a stack of pages – his first effort at a play – and hands it gingerly over to Williams, who giddily grabs it.
The moment contains all the sensitivities involved with putting one’s self into art, as well as the desire to share it and hide it at the same time. Inge imagines artistic fame can be a cure-all for his desire to be fully accepted. Williams, a bit too wise already, seems to know that even fame won’t satisfy. In this portrait of two artists as young men, albeit in their 30s, Dawkins heavily foreshadows their failures to find happiness.
Given the emphasis here on artists’ vulnerability, let me say, very forthrightly, I am a longtime admirer of the prolific Dawkins’ work. His best play so far, “Charm,” about a group of characters across the continuum of gender identity attending an etiquette class, deserves even more attention that it has received.
But despite intermittently interesting themes and clever lines (Galvan’s Williams produces a steady barrage of off-color quips), as well as pleasing design work and the noble efforts of the actors and director Cody Estle to craft beats and transitions within the two elongated scenes, “The Gentleman Caller” never finds forward momentum.
It remains a historical fact in search of more expressive fiction.
Steven Oxman is a Chicago-based freelance writer.