Together with Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams must surely rate as one of the greatest contemporary American playwrights. Since the mid 40’s when his ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ burst upon the London stage, he has given us a wealth of compelling, soul-searching plays. Many of these have transferred successfully to the screen, and in most he has written particularly strong roles for the female leads. One publicity report in recent years claims that he wrote most of his leading roles with Anna Magnani and Marlon Brando in mind. The last play of his to appear in the West End several years ago was ‘Period Of Adjustment’. This was not a particularly successful venture, and since then, though he has had new plays produced on or off Broadway, none have reached our shores ’til now.
In SMALL CRAFT WARNINGS he makes a welcome return to the London theatre, explosive moments, but watch her in the setting his characters in a sleazy waterfront bar on the Californian coast. O’Neill used this setting to good effect in one of my favourite plays ‘The Iceman Cometh’, and William Saroyan also found himself a winner by using a barroom for his play ‘The Time Of Your Life’. Both these authors used a wide range of characters, and there were a good many well written cameo scenes involving two or more characters at a time. Unfortunately Williams only gives us 9 characters, and has not allowed much interplay between them.
The losers and boozers of life that use this bar are familiar to us from previous Williams plays, but once again he enlivens the proceedings by having them philosophise about their lives. His observance of human frailty and loneliness are once again pinpointed right on target.
The proceedings are dominated by Elaine Stritch, playing Leona, a middle-aged beautician who has reached the end of a 6 month affair with a worthless ageing stud. She is celebrating the anniversary of the death of her brother when the play commences, and makes her entrance flinging a deluge of abuse at her lover. Vivian Matelon’s direction of the play has allowed her to overstate in her quiet moments of the play as she observes the people around her. Particularly moving is the scene where she questions and talks to two homosexuals. Her expressive face as she listens to them is a story in itself. She has been to hell and back, and one can identify with her resilience towards the hardships of life.
The other inhabitants of the bar include an alcoholic doctor who has been barred from the profession but continues to perform the occasional operation, played by George Pravda, and a homosexual hack screen writer perceptively portrayed by Tony Beckley who delivers one of the author’s most telling speeches. Edward Judd as the insensitive stud gives another of his fine performances.
Perhaps the most typical of all Williams’ creations is the character of the half-wit derelict girl, who is ready to accept the first offer given to her. She is played to perfection by Frances de la Tour.
FOOTNOTE: Since this review was written we have heard that the production is to open at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London W1, on March 13.