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Review: Clashing Lives in Tennessee Williams’s ‘Creve Coeur’

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

The colors are the least of the things that clash in the small, feverishly decorated apartment that is the setting for Austin Pendleton’s overwhelmed revival of Tennessee Williams’s “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur.” Never mind that the stew of bright hues on view here causes one character, a prim visitor of more classic tastes, to recoil as if before a wall of fire.

Sensitive audiences at the Theater at St. Clement’s are more likely to be alarmed by the discordance of styles among the four actresses in this late offering from the author of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” None of the performances from the ensemble here — which includes the estimable Kristine Nielsen and Annette O’Toole — seems to match up with any of the others in terms of style, temperament, scale or audibility.

Now you might argue that such disconnectedness is thematically appropriate to a tale of lonely women in futile search of soul mates in Depression-era St. Louis. But it’s hard not to feel that their existential crises might be best resolved if each were simply sent to appear in another play by a beneficent, godlike casting director.

Though a hit-starved Williams had long ceased to rely on the kindness of critics when “Creve Coeur” opened Off Broadway in 1979, reviews were largely charitable. They observed that while the show, which starred Shirley Knight, recycled weary Williams elements, it had the virtue of providing four of those deeply empathic parts for women in which the playwright specialized.

Certainly, the arch diction and besieged gentility of the figure at the play’s center, Dorothea (Jean Lichty), summon memories of Williams’s greatest creation, Blanche DuBois from “Streetcar.” When told a potential suitor has been losing weight, Dorothea answers, “Does he regard me as an athletic event, the high jump or the pole vault?”

At least I think that’s what she said. A breathy Ms. Lichty was often nigh impossible to understand. The same cannot be said of the booming Ms. Nielsen, who plays the hearty, hopeful Bodey, Dorothea’s roommate, who is of German descent.

This bouncy, cliché-mangling optimist desperately wants Dorothea to marry her (never seen) twin brother. But Dorothea, a teacher, believes she will soon be betrothed to the blue-blooded school principal to whom she has recently sacrificed her virginity in the back of his car, known as “The Flying Cloud.”

She spends the play waiting in vain for his call, while her hearing-impaired roommate tries to talk her into a picnic with Bodey’s strapping brother in Creve Coeur Park. They are interrupted by the arrivals of Miss Gluck (a lugubrious Polly McKie), the bereaved, German-speaking neighbor whose mother recently died; and Helena (Ms. O’Toole), Dorothea’s fellow teacher, who wants to share an apartment with her in a more respectable neighborhood.

Buttoned into angular rigidity in Beth Goldenberg’s matchy period suit and hat, Ms. O’Toole looks perfect for the part. Yet her performance is strangely spasmodic, as if she couldn’t commit to a single gesture or expression. Ms. Lichty, when you can hear her, does indeed sound like a road-company Blanche.

Ms. Nielsen, an actress of sui generis comic skills, isn’t a natural fit for a Williams play. But her extravagantly eccentric performance does manage to hint at the wounded center of a boisterous character.

Harry Feiner’s set and lighting summon the chaos of an overfurnished “efficiency apartment.” Perhaps they do so too thoroughly, as it’s hard to figure out how the rooms are divided, and who can see and hear whom at a given moment.

Still, I’m grateful for any décor that occasions the following, immortally Williams exchange: “Where’s my tiger lily?” “Dropped on the fierce purple carpet.”

Though indubitably a lesser Williams work, “Creve Coeur” does sparkle now and then with such jewels. It’s just hard to pick them out amid the clutter.


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