In his 1973 “Dispensable Foreword” to Out Cry, Tennessee Williams claims to have “the necessary arrogance to assume that a failed production of a play is not necessarily a failed play” and confesses to his “depression over the failed production.“ Williams had fair cause to feel this way—Out Cry, which took him ten years to write, ran on Broadway for only thirteen performances before being cancelled amid poor critical and audience reactions. Thankfully, Williams was right in his assumption, which becomes clear as one discovers The Two-Character Play (an alternate version of Out Cry) currently running at New World Stages—a kind of post-Beckettian riff on themes that occupied Williams throughout his entire creative life, the play is a wonderful discovery, a remarkable work that seems to have been misplaced for three decades.
Felice (Brad Dourif) is an actor and playwright whose drug-addicted sister, Claire (Amanda Plummer), is accompanying him on tour; currently, they are housed in a Southern town called New Bethesda, but it feels like a decomposing national theater in some forgotten Soviet satellite. Abandoned by their company, they proceed nonetheless with Felice’s autobiographical Two-Character Play, and what ensues is a nightmare Noises Off, with Felice scrambling around the stage to set up props and remind his sister of her lines as the performance lumbers along in front of a disinterested crowd. In the play-within-the-play, Felice and Clare are siblings named—yes—Felice and Clare, Southerners who struggle to carry on with their gothic lives after their father murdered their mother and then committed suicide, “unkindly forgetting his children.” However, this life largely consists of aborted plans for Clare to “go calling” and the two of them to pick up groceries. Terrified by the outside world, they remain psychologically trapped in their dark house. Though well into their ‘sixties, Felice and Clare have always, it seems, lived in the castle. “Sometimes the same idea still occurs to us both,” smiles Felice towards the end of the play. Indeed, the disintegrating state of their minds seem somehow linked, as if they were jointly going insane—both Felice’s characters as well as Williams’, whose identities become appropriately tangled throughout. Earlier, she asks, “Do you hate me?” and Felice, as if repeating a reassuring platitude, says, “Of course I do, if I love you.”
The indefatigably professional Mr. Dourif, with eyebrows like bushy worms and shoulder-length hair that probably hasn’t been anything but finger combed since the Apollo 11 moon landings, is perfectly cast as Felice, balancing rage, tenderness, anxiety, and the exhaustion of both the insane and of those nursing the insane. As for Ms. Plummer: I do not know if she is a genius, but her performance is a work of genius, fearless and unequivocal; with the sharp but pouty childishness of the mentally ill, she giggles and shrieks and stumbles over her lines with a sincerity that makes it near-impossible to even glimpse the actor behind the character. It is that rare but ever yearned for theatrical event in which the bald authenticity creates a feeling of both unease and wonder in the audience, who feel slightly dirty in their voyeurism.
Both before and after their performance, there is much talk from Felice of getting lost in the play. Though I was happy to leave Williams’ subterranean theater after two hours—very much longer and I might have gone the way of Felice and Clare—I do not believe I have been so focused, so engaged, so lost in a work since Mike Nichols’ Death of a Salesman.