By far the most autobiographical of Tennessee Williams’ works, Vieux Carré — which premiered (and quickly flopped) on Broadway in 1977, five years before his death — is a sort of crazy-quilt assemblage of earlier Williams dramas. It mixes the writer character and memory component of The Glass Menagerie, the New Orleans setting of A Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly Last Summer, the dead-end atmosphere of Camino Real, and stock characters such as artists, nursemaids, dotty old ladies, drifters, and flaming homosexuals. Yet the Wooster Group’s gripping, ever-so-melodramatic production — running Off Broadway through March 13 — is surely like no Williams you’ve ever seen.
Not surprisingly, director (and Wooster vet) Elizabeth LeCompte isn’t attempting any realistic re-creation of a run-down French Quarter rooming house in her slice-and-dice approach to the play. The warehouse-like stage at the Jerome Robbins Theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center is simply partitioned off and chopped up — one crumbling, thin-walled room simply blends into another. Similarly, she’s double-cast a handful of the main roles that share a few deep-seated qualities: Kate Valk plays both Mrs. Wire, the landlady who’s losing her marbles, and Jane Sparks, the tenant who’s losing her health; Scott Shepherd is the hunky homophobic drugged-up gigolo Tye McCool and the outrageously gay tubercular artist Nightingale. (Tye and Nightingale, incidentally, are each endowed with an immense phallus.) LeCompte has also relegated entire characters to voice-overs or video spots, and cut chunks of text altogether. (If you really want to know what you’re missing, some of it shows up on the TV screens upstage.)
Speaking of video — a hallmark of Wooster productions — it does complement the fragmented nature of this already fragmented play, but I found myself largely ignoring the screens. They’re best used when playing out sex scenes — explicit guy-on-guy fantasies that fill the head of our tortured, lonely hero, The Writer (Ari Fliakos). There’s nothing at all erotic about them; they’re simply another manifestation of loneliness, the emotion that pours forth from each and every Williams play — perhaps none more so than Vieux Carré. B+
(Tickets: SmartTix.com or 212-868-4444)