Tennessee Williams is arguably America’s greatest playwright. Not quite as prolific as either Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill, but wittier than Miller and without, for the most part, O’Neill’s ham-handedness, the best of Williams might be described as “lyric realism” – real people, in real situations, but with dreams and ideas and dialogue which approach the poetic. The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, The Night of the Iguana – they won prizes, sure, but even if they hadn’t, they would still be acknowledged as masterpieces.
Of course, like virtually every playwright, not everything Tennessee Williams wrote was a masterpiece. It’s no diminution of his extraordinary talent to say some of his work is… um… well, many words come to mind: distasteful and icky are a few. And Baby Doll, despite a fine production at the Fountain Theatre, definitely qualifies for those two.
Actually, this Baby Doll isn’t really by Tennessee Williams. It’s an adaptation (by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann) of the screenplay of Baby Doll, the 1955 movie, which is, in turn, based on Williams’s one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. Though Williams was nominated for an Oscar for Baby Doll, the film’s director, Elia Kazan, boasted in his memoir that, in fact, he – Kazan – wrote much of the screenplay, since Williams was apparently not terribly interested.
Which may mitigate some of the distastefulness of the piece. For Baby Doll is most definitely a nasty little piece of work. Baby Doll (Lindsay LaVanchy) is just about to turn 20, which is when her considerably older husband Archie Lee Meighan (John Prosky) will finally be able to consummate the marriage. See, Baby Doll’s father – on his deathbed several years ago – married the underage girl off to rich businessman Archie Lee, but insisted he not… you know… until she turned 20.
However, Archie Lee has suffered business reverses: this cotton gin owner/ operator has seen his dominance in the town plummet after a more modern gin opened next door, managed by the hunky Silva Vaccaro (Daniel Bess). Things are so bad that the furniture in Archie and Baby Doll’s decrepit house has been repossessed – all except the crib in which the “childlike” Baby Doll sleeps. Alone.
Archie Lee devises a scheme to get back on top. He sets a fire which burns down his rival’s business – thus making his gin once again the only place for the local cotton farmers to process their goods – but needs Baby Doll to corroborate his story that he was home, drunk and passed out, at the time of the fire.
Baby Doll, being “childlike,” can’t quite wrap her mind around consistently lying to protect Archie Lee, especially when the very attractive Silva comes over to spend the afternoon. Baby Doll inadvertently spills the beans about Archie’s treachery, the borderline-sadistic Silva takes full advantage, and nobody lives happily ever after. Some fun, eh?
What makes this play so repellent is that none of the main characters are in the least appealing, even Baby Doll who – as played disturbingly well by Ms LaVanchy – makes us understand the euphemistic nature of the term “childlike.” The word which used to be used – in Williams’s day and even more recently – was “retarded.”
It was Ms LaVanchy’s performance which made me realize I knew Baby Doll. Not whoever the actual character might have been based on, but someone I knew growing up. You see, for a number of years, my family had a summer house on a lake. Two docks over was another family – a successful professional dad, his stay-at-home-mom wife, and their two children. The son was severely retarded and the daughter – a few years older than I – was mildly so. “Childlike” if you will.
A teenager when I met her, she could be wide-eyed and innocent one moment, kittenish and seductive the next, obstinate and recalcitrant the moment after that. As she approached 20 – Baby Doll’s age – her parents allowed her to participate in their cocktail hour, and she became even more unpredictable after she’d had a “gin-gin,” her term for a gin and tonic. It was sad, as she was a nice girl, and one realized her parents wanted only the best for her. Some years later, I heard she’d gotten married.
Ms LaVanchy’s portrayal expertly captures those quicksilver changes of personality. One second Baby Doll appears to be a sensible – if spoiled – young woman, the next she turns into someone incapable of moving off her porch while the property next door burns, and soon after she becomes easy prey for a man with more muscles (and more subtlety) than her despised husband. She mispronounces words here and there and tries to appear in control of her body and her mind: one can’t always determine how much of Baby Doll’s innocence is real and how much is feigned. It’s an uncomfortable performance – and that’s meant as a compliment.
Mr. Prosky’s Archie Lee is a lout for the ages, and one can almost feel the actor’s glee as he pushes the boundaries of good taste and virtually dares the audience to hiss and throw things at him. Likewise, Mr. Bess’s Silva starts off as a victim, but rapidly becomes yet another predator, charming information out of Baby Doll to use in a pact with the devil.
The only character even remotely sympathetic – other than the Sheriff, nicely played in a brief scene by George Roland – is Aunt Rose Comfort, the sister of Baby Doll’s dead father, who lives with Baby Doll and Archie Lee and serves as their cook and generic punching bag. As deliciously played by Karen Kondazian, she serves as both comic relief and an anchor to reality. Aunt Rose may, in fact, be close in intellect to Baby Doll, but as considerably older – and less physically desirable – she’s more easily disposable, which leads to the few moments of genuine emotion in the play.
The suitably seedy set is by Jeffrey McLaughlin, the lighting design is by Ken Booth, the costume design is by Terri A. Lewis, and the sound design is by Peter Bayne: all provide just what the production needs.
Simon Levy’s direction is brisk and efficient, and gives full weight to both the comic aspects of the story and the emotional turmoil (some of) the characters sustain.
The real problem is that the tone of the play itself is so uncertain. It veers restlessly between over-the-top Saturday Night Live sketch comedy and plangent melodrama. Is it farce? Is it tragedy? Is it just a plain old shaggy-dog story?
And more to the point, do we want to be in the company of the three main characters, all of whom are gross, selfish, self-centered, and eager to wreak havoc on those around them? Your call.
Screenplay by Tennessee Williams
Adapted for the stage by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann
Directed by Simon Levy
Through September 25
5060 Fountain Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90029
Tickets: 323-663-1525 or www.FountainTheatre.com