I bought "Dragon Country," a collection of Tennessee Williams plays, 35 years ago and very much enjoyed "Confessional" (which later became "Small Craft Warnings"), "The Mutilated" (a raffish, poignant tale of New Orleans lowlife centered on an actual, notorious establishment called the Silver Dollar Hotel) and the comic sketch "A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot." Even plays I didn't particularly care for had lines that were pure Tennessee, such as "Dragon country, the country of pain, is an uninhabitable country which is inhabited."
But for the life of me, I could not get through "In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel," which infuriated me with its short, truncated sentences that just stopped, incomplete, with a period, as opposed to the long, lyrical lines of Williams' "best" work, which would trail off into an ellipsis. I knew that "Bar" was written in 1969, during Williams' self-described "stoned age," when he claimed to be trying new forms of writing, whereas most critics thought that what emerged -- almost a rebuke against his "poetic realism" -- was the best he could manage.
Well, I forced myself to read "In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel" a few weeks ago, knowing that DRAMA! was about to produce it. To my surprise, I found that I understood the play at once. It describes the plight of Mark, a visual artist, who insists that he has made a breakthrough in his art, that the tension that once existed between himself and his work is gone. "Now, there is no division between us at all any more!" He senses acutely that "color isn't passive, it, it -- has a fierce life to it!" but that he is "terrified of the new canvases," which his caustic wife dismisses as "circus-colored mudpies."
It's Williams explaining the plays he has begun to write -- including "Toyko" -- with the wife standing in for the critics who ridiculed the work. There is the occasional familiar Williams refrain ("An artist has to lay his life on the line") as well as the suggestion that the husband and wife are two halves of the same person, the high-minded artist and the ravenous creature of unappeasable appetites.
One must also realize that, especially in the later plays, whatever was going on in Williams' life and mind went directly onto the page, in almost a stream-of-consciousness style. In his "Memoirs," he says that during this period, he was literally falling down, as is the artist in the play. Williams feared abandonment, the threat of confinement, madness, aging, and the "change that he feels or imagines" in the attitude of everyone from intimates to critics to his audience. And it's all here, almost unfiltered through the prism of art.
In DRAMA's production of "In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel," director Blake Balu solves the problem of the fragmented dialogue by keeping the play flowing, the actors picking up cues as quickly as possible. (When they do not, or uncertainty creeps in, the play falters or comes to an uncomfortable halt).
Most of the first act is one of Williams' sensual teases as the artist's sexually voracious wife, Miriam, makes increasingly crude passes at the young Japanese hotel barman. When the artist stumbles in -- wearing one of Williams' trademark white suits, this one smeared with paint -- it is to state his problem and the wife informs him of her solution, which is to ship him back home under heavy sedation to a relative, while she continues sampling the gentlemen of Japan. The act ends in verbal violence.
In the second act, Leonard, the gallery owner who sells Mark's work and has some understanding and empathy for him, appears. "A painter with Mark's talent and originality is a restless creature that lives in his private jungle," he says. "He doesn't work for the purpose of having a price tag in four figures on his paintings," which Miriam calls "a crock."
Marinda Woodruff has the flashiest role -- and the best pay-off -- as bitch-on-wheels Miriam, which she plays to the hilt and beyond as an imperious, vulgar voluptuary.
Michael Chase-Creasy is believably bleary as the artist in free fall, disoriented and sympathetic, with the occasional flash of lucidity or invective that makes you hold out hope that he ain't down yet.
Martin Covert's Leonard looks and behaves as if he actually might be a denizen of the trendy New York art world, skilled in handling -- even manipulating -- difficult painters, while keeping his humanity intact.
Ferdinand Olinger's prim barman, who is "engaged and faithful," objects to Miriam "placing your hand improperly on my body" (though he allows it). He creates an amusing and intriguing figure.
The bar setting, by Balu and Dion Van Niekerk, is all black, the furniture having a lacquered look, the black walls slashed with streaks of vivid red, as if to give us an idea of Martin's art.
Cecile Casey Covert's costumes for Woodruff have an authentic period nouveau-riche look, the first a cocktail dress to display ample decolletage, the second an ostentatious brown traveling suit trimmed in white, both with hats with coq feathers sprouting impudently out of them.
Ultimately, this isn't top-drawer Williams, but it plays much better than it reads. When I brought the subject of the play up to Williams' friend, writer Gavin Lambert, he said quickly, "Oh, I like it very much."
"But it's so -- different," I said.
"Yes," he agreed, "that's what makes it interesting."
IN THE BAR
OF A TOKYO HOTEL
What: DRAMA! presents Tennessee Williams' drama, directed by Blake Balu.
Where: Marigny Theatre, 1030 Marigny St. (corner St. Claude Ave.).
When: Fri-Sat at 8, Sun at 6 through April 17.
Tickets: $12; $15 at door, $7 students with valid ID.
Call: (504) 948-9924 or www.DramaNO.org