Vieux Carre's a thrill for Williams buffs only

Feb 20, 2008 at 4:00 am
When Tom Williams finally graduated from college at age 27, he escaped conservative St. Louis and set out to see the world. By the time he took up temporary residence in New Orleans a few weeks later, he had changed his first name to Tennessee. "This is the most fascinating place I've ever been," the wide-eyed would-be dramatist wrote to his mother in December 1938. Six weeks later he wrote again: "I'm using my colorful experiences here as the background for a new play which is well under way." By late February 1939 Tennessee had moved on to California, and that early script, eventually to be titled Vieux Carre (translation: French Quarter), would not be completed for nearly 40 years. But the heady adventures he crammed into those two months would resonate with him forever.

Vieux Carre, which is currently being staged by Muddy Waters Theatre Company, is one of the lost pieces in the jigsaw puzzle that is Tennessee Williams. This semi-autobiographical account of an innocent young writer being exposed to illness and death, love and violence in a seedy boarding house intrigues both as one of Williams' earliest — and also as one of his final — works. Some of the overwriting in Act One suggests that the eager novice couldn't type quickly enough to cram everything in. But by play's end the pace is more labored, suggesting that the murky final scenes were written decades later through the miasma of too many pills and too much booze. Vieux Carre provides a crash course in the 40-year trajectory of an artist's rise and shine, decline and fall, all in two and a half hours.

Vieux Carre is sustained by curiosity. For the Williams buff, almost every scene is a case study. Midway into Act One, for instance, the nameless Writer (who is modeled after Williams himself) declares, "When I blow out that candle, I want to be alone." The line is so derivative of Tom's whispered cry in The Glass Menagerie, "Blow out your candles, Laura, and so goodbye," that it would be fun to know which speech was written first. In which play did Williams borrow from himself?

But beyond curiosity, and beyond its author's celebrity, a play should be able to sustain itself. Based on what we see here, it would be hard to fault the original critical verdicts in 1977 that doomed Vieux Carre to a six-performance run when it debuted on Broadway. Sometimes memory plays summon the wrong kinds of memories. As we watch Jared Sanz-Agero as Tye, the bully who will morph into Stanley Kowalski, it's hard not to recall Sanz-Agero's vivid performance as Stanley in the superb Hothouse Theatre Company staging of A Streetcar Named Desire in 2002; then we realize how one-dimensional Tye is.

The peripatetic script imposes severe challenges on director Annamaria Pileggi and her designers. The action travels throughout the shabby boarding house at 722 Toulouse Street. Various scenes occur in the bedrooms of a consumptive painter (Kevin Beyer), a doomed girl from New Rochelle (Julie Layton) and Williams' alter-ego (Luke Lindberg). We spend time with the delusional landlady (Peggy Billo) in the foyer. But the Muddy Waters set pushes too much of the action upstage, as far away from the audience as possible, which makes viewer involvement difficult. Apart from the three louvered shutters hanging on one wall, there's little feel for the Vieux Carre. But why should there be, when the title itself is being misspoken? Throughout Williams' life "vieux" rhymed with "go." Here, the actors say "voo" as in "you." What is the basis for that elocutionary faux pas?

When a company like Muddy Waters commits an entire season to the same playwright, it's important that they not limit themselves to the author's "greatest hits." On that score, Vieux Carre is a valid selection. But no, a neglected masterpiece is not being unearthed here; at best, a footnote is being amplified.