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First Nighter: Tennessee Williams's In Masks Outrageous and Austere' Unmasked as Faceless

04/17/2012 08:27 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2012

When you sit through something as turgid, as ludicrous as In Masks Outrageous and Austere, Tennessee Williams's last play -- or so we're led to believe of a manuscript cobbled together by other peddler-meddlers, supposedly including a computer -- you spend much of the slow-moving time wondering whom the roiling cauldron of picked-over Williams obsessions serves. Among the groups, it definitely doesn't benefit are theater audiences.

Needless to say, anything written by a master -- which Williams remains, despite the evidence provided at 45 Bleecker St. -- is of interest. But some things of interest about the playwright are of less interest than others and best left to scholars dedicated to putting every aspect of the celebrated dramatist's works in proper perspective.

Reporting what transpires in the play is tantamount to inviting helpless giggles, but here goes: fabulously rich Clarissa "Babe" Foxworth (Shirley Knight), her gay young husband Billy (Robert Beitzel) and his boyfriend Jerry (Sam Underwood) have been kidnapped to some unidentified seaside spot by three shantung-suited security guards called Gideons (Ward Horton, Scot Charles Anderson, Kaolin Bass.)

Trying to figure out why they're there and what's going to happen to them, the dyspeptic three only succeed in getting on each other's last nerves. Also wearing them down are Babe's randy maid Peg Foyle (Pamela Shaw), Babe's strapping mechanic swain Joey (Christopher Halladay) and next-door neighbor Mrs. Gorse-Bracken (Alison Fraser, looking more like Angela Lansbury than ever) and her bird-imitating swishy, slicker-clad son Playboy (Connor Buckley). Later, the hijacked three are invaded by growling black man Mac (Jermaine Miles) and his dwarf interpreter (Jonathan Kim).

That's not to mention Buck Henry, playing a doomed lawyer, and Austin Pendleton, portraying a doomed doctor. Those two are pixel-projected (Darrel Maloney's work) on James Noone's sleek set with wall-sized flatscreens, translucent doors and patio furniture. Lucky for Henry and Pendleton, they don't have to turn up nightly for renewed embarrassment

Don't ask what's really going on during In Masks Outrageous and Austere because details are a waste of time. It's enough to say there seems to be a plot afoot to get Babe, Billy and Jerry even farther out of the way than wherever they've landed for the nonce.

Why such machinations are in place doesn't come up for explanation, Who Babe, Billy and Jerry are to begin with is only established through cursory exposition. Therefore, there's no reason to care what happens to them over the course of two overwrought acts during which, among other far-fetched incidents, an infestation of unseen but often discussed tent worms is burned out as an apparent, hardly illuminating metaphor.

To be sure, vestiges of Williams's themes as lodged in his memorable plays -- and some of his lesser achievements -- are present. Reality and illusion get kicked around in dialogue explicitly using those very words. At one point, Babe expatiates on what happens when masks are removed and all that's left is "animal survival." The line "I won't forget your kindness" surfaces and instantly strikes a familiar Williams chord. But the remarks register not so much as insights than as Williams cliches.

And who's to say -- other than the production's perpetrators -- whether that computer hasn't selected the words and phrases for a propos (and appropriated) reprises? Maybe the lame sputterings can be found in the Williams script on display in the theater's lobby, but even so, they don't land on auditors' ears as fresh.

Iconic Williams characters also accumulate in this journey farther down Camino Real and a good distance beyond the point where the milk train no longer stops. Babe is a replay of Milk Train's loud-mouth protagonist. Joey is a Stanley Kowalski echo. Billy and Jerry are shadows of Blanche DuBois's lost young men. Peg Foyle represents Blanche's only partially repressed raunchy side.

But why go on when the types have not only been seen before but have been played by better actors than the desperate crew brought together by director David Schweizer, who's working furiously and futilely against defeating odds? Even the normally effective Shirley Knight is at a complete loss. Occasionally, she's even at a complete loss for words, which a prompter sitting nearby in the auditorium loudly provides,

The lone exception to this troupe of players performing at mediocre-or-less levels is Alison Fraser. Wearing designer Gabriel Berry's gorgeous lavender gown and matching miniature top hat, she exaggerates her part's campiness with the kind of satirizing savvy she shows off when Charles Busch wisely casts her.

This is just a long-winded go at saying that while In Masks Outrageous and Austere is undeniably outrageous, it's outrageous for all the wrong reasons and hardly worth more than terse dismissal.