Penny Arcade has the ideal résumé for The Mutilated, a late, bizarre Tennessee Williams play that is dominated by camp. Throughout her career, she has worked with Andy Warhol, his director Paul Morrissey, and the late experimental filmmaker Jack Smith. With oversized breasts and a way of reciting lines that is simultaneously so flat and so hammy that it must either be entirely accidental or entirely deliberate, she would fit right in with John Waters’ gang of freaks (her co-star, Mink Stole, is a Waters regular). Here she plays Celeste, an alcoholic who is willing to lease out any part of her body for a bottle or even just a drink; in the stage directions, Williams writes, “Her age is fifty; her spirit, unconquerable.” The word unconquerable is key—Ms. Arcade’s acting may be horrible but it is indefatigable. None of this, however, is meant to read as disdainful or condescending. Nobody could play Celeste as well as Ms. Arcade.
In ninety minutes, Celeste proves a loud, obnoxious presence, stomping drunk around New Orleans in the winter, flirting with sailors, blurting songs out of key, and alternately betraying and trying to rekindle her old friendship with Trinket (Ms. Stole), a lonely oil heiress, a “mutilated” woman whose breast was removed in some kind of surgery. Celeste is the only one who knows this, and she uses the knowledge to get free wine and free dinners out of Trinket, whose part is largely delegated to long, mournful monologues about sexual lonesomeness delivered in a slow drawl. Celeste and Trinket do seem to love (or at least need) each other in some unhealthy, emotionally masochistic way, and this Southern melodrama neatly follows the thread of Williams’ earlier, more coherent work. It is something like a creepy Christmas Carol.
But formally, it is a mess. The action is framed by a Greek chorus, the “action” being much like the city of New Orleans itself: a sloppy series of vignettes that are trashy and fun (and all backed by fantastic music) but whose end is certainly welcome. Watching The Mutilated feels like watching a Douglas Sirk movie, half-awake, half-dreaming, and with a belly-ache at three in the morning. It is an experience I am glad to have had but not one I would want to repeat anytime soon.