Top Five "Old Plays" I'd Like to See in Houston
We're never grateful for things that don't happen, like NOT getting a flat tire. And we usually don't ruminate on things we love that are absent (unless he or she is especially hot), but nonetheless I found myself musing on plays I miss - I'm a Manhattan/Miami transplant, so forgive me if some were mounted unbeknownst to me. Below are works of theatrical genius that would grace the Houston stages, and which I'd love to see. I have ideas as to which troupes might tackle them, but it would be presumptuous for me to air them. But you can -- let us know your suggestions in the comments.
5. Salome, by Oscar Wilde. The story of John the Baptist and Salome, at the royal court of Herod, first performed (in French in Paris) in 1896. Herod, entranced by the enticing dance of Salome, grants her a wish - any wish - and Salome asks for the head of John the Baptist, who has called out her mother, Herodias, for her lasciviousness. Yes, it's melodrama; yes, it's written in poetic, sometimes stilted language; yes it's X-rated or should be; yes, it has a large cast; yes, it has production problems (John is imprisoned down a well), but some consider it the best one-act ever written. The emotions are powerful, the grasp of human nature is incisive, and it's eminently playable because it has the ring of truth.
4. 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, a 1946 one-act by Tennessee Williams. Jake burns down the new modern "syndicate" cotton gin that is ruining his own small business, and the manager of the burnt gin, Silva, hires Jake to gin his cotton, in a quid pro quo arrangement as Silva gets his way with Jake's wife, Flora. This is a most unorthodox story of arson, greed, sado-masochism, and rape by intimidation (or is it?), but written with such nuance and subtlety that each line is compelling. Feminists may hate it, but my reading is that Flora is the sharpest knife in this drawer. It's difficult to cast as Flora must be Ruben-esque, and her size is discussed at length, in highly favorable terms. Williams calls it a comedy, and it is, but it's a tough job for the director to sell this to the cast, given the subject matter. I'm in awe at the vast ground of human nature covered.
3. The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, a full-length drama by Tennessee Williams. This work got Hermione Baddeley a Tony nomination in 1963 but lasted just five performances on B'way a year later, with Tallulah Bankhead. Bankhead, a great actress, would have been brilliant a decade earlier, but she came out of 14 years retirement, playing bridge and having the occasional glass of bourbon, and couldn't be heard past the 5th row. The lead is Sissy Goforth, a once famous international beauty with fabulous wealth now dying in her Italian villa. Director Michael Wilson, active at the Alley, and Olympia Dukakis saw its genius and did it off-B'way last year, but Olympia was (sorry!) never a great beauty and was too old, and so was the actor playing Chris Flanders - he should be a hot 30-ish poet, a difficult part because he is unselfish and we don't know anybody like that. Tab Hunter played it with Tallulah, against the wish of director Tony Richardson, who assumed in his autobiography that Williams owed Tab a "favor." Rupert Everett played Sissy in drag in London in 1998, and apparently no scenery was safe while he was on stage. Forget the Kabuki scene-changers in the published version, and present it as one of the most accurate, chilling, hilarious and human descriptions of facing the grim reaper you are ever likely to run across.
Tab Hunter and Tallulah Bankhead.
2. Tiny Alice, on B'way in 1964 from Edward Albee. It is mysterious, haunting, absurd - and yet it makes us wonder as few plays have. The play is more timely today, as we learn from science that there are really 16 dimensions (or is it more, now?) while we just experience three plus the fourth, time, which we perceive as "passing" but actually pre-exists - my head starts to hurt about here. It opened with Sir John Gielgud as Brother Julian, sadly miscast, as Gielgud comes across as an Oxford don and the part is that of a man ravaged by the bloodlust of dammed-up sexuality. (Irene Worth did get a best-actress Tony for her role as Miss Alice.) In 1998, it was revived on B'way with Richard Thomas (John-Boy in television's The Waltons), who got excellent reviews for finding Brother Julian's naiveté. But the play is not about innocence - it is about passion. It's a vicious and highly entertaining power struggle by strong personalities striving to achieve usually evil goals - bless them. Thomas is too well-bred for the part, as Julian is as self-willed as the others, though his quarrel is with God. Think a local Sean Penn, younger, in his thirties. Yes, there are some inferior vaudeville gags, and the butler is named Butler and Mr. Albee won't let you shorten an enormously long monologue on metaphysics that ends the play. But the opening scene is brilliant in its wit and in establishing character, carrying you into the heart of the play, and there is real suspense and even joy if you sit back and savor not-knowing. I can't wait to see what the brilliant local set designer, Jodi Bobrowski, does with the crucial set. I would think Gothic castle (it was much too well-lit on B'way, antiseptic even), but, hey, she's the genius here.
Sir John Gielgud
1. Let My People Come - a Sexual Musical. Originated at the Village Gate in NYC in 1974, with music and lyrics by Earl Wilson, Jr. It lingers in memory because there was a lot of nudity, and as you left the theater the actors wished you bon voyage in their altogether. But also because it had warmth and love, and the sex was tender and enjoyable, as was the music, as opposed to Kenneth Tynan's long-running hit Oh! Calcutta!, which was about sex but was as sexy as a recipe. I'll list some of the song titles but the editor will probably delete most: "I'm Gay", "Give it to Me", "Come in My Mouth" and (my favorite) "The Cunnilingus Champion of Company C." You get the idea. My memory is that it's a series of vignettes, loosely related, but I've never been able to find the script, as it's not available from the usual sources. But, hey, I've just discovered through the miracle of Google that it's been revived and is even now playing in Chicago at Stage 773, although with no full frontal. I hope some lucky producer gives them a call - I'd love to refresh my memory!