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Tennessee’s Schmaltz: Poet Laureate of White Trash

Ed Rampell: In the same way that Bronx-born, Brooklyn-raised Woody Allen is the motion picture poet laureate of New York Jews, Mississippi-born playwright Tennessee Williams is the theatrical poet laureate of Southern white trash.
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Daniel Bess and Lindsay LaVanchy (Photos by Ed Krieger)

BABY DOLL Theatre Review

In the same way that Bronx-born, Brooklyn-raised Woody Allen is the motion picture poet laureate of New York Jews, Mississippi-born playwright Tennessee Williams is the theatrical poet laureate of Southern white trash. The prolific two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for the plays A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also wrote for the big screen, including the screenplay adaptations of many of his stage productions.

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John Prosky and Lindsay LaVanchy

Williams penned Baby Doll explicitly for Hollywood and the version currently being mounted on the boards at the Fountain Theatre is the West Coast premiere of an adaptation by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann. The drama, which has some sly gallows humor, reworks Williams’ recurring themes, notably in terms of sexual tension.

The plot revolves around the relationship between the middle-aged, not-so-handsome Archie Lee Mieghan (John Prosky, veteran of stage and screen) and Baby Doll (Lindsay Lavanchy). The main plot point is that in this sort of arranged marriage, the nubile but infantile blonde beauty, who still sleeps in a kind of crib, has refused to consummate the marriage until she turns 20. Enter the virile Silva Vaccaro (Hawaii actor Daniel Bess, who has a role in the upcoming made-in-Hawaii Amy Schumer movie) to upset the repressed applecart, as the “D-Day” (as in “deflowering”) of Baby Doll’s 20th birthday nears.

It’s curious as to why this stage adaptation has raised Baby Doll’s age from 18 in the movie shot way back in the 1950s, to 20? The age of consent in present day Mississippi, where the story is set, is reportedly only 16. So it seems odd that in our day and age of greater sexual openness that the playwrights made Baby Doll older - is it a case of political correctness run amok? If so, I think that this does Williams a disservice. It is truly annoying that when artists have the right to more freedom of expression that they don’t avail themselves of it. One can only imagine what Tennessee would have wraught had he the free speech guarantees now enjoyed (if often underused) by today’s talents?

Be that as it may, while Archie screams for Baby Doll like Stanley Kowalski rather famously did for Stella in Streetcar, it is actually the strapping, good looking Vaccaro character who has the Kowalski-type role. However, instead of being Polish, Silva is of Italian ancestry (although an ethnic slur is sometimes used to describe him). In addition to the sexual frisson, the story chronicles the shifting class and ethnic relations in the South where Williams had been born and reared. Unfortunately, the movie’s Black subplot is only briefly verbally alluded to in this five-character stage version. What appears to be the Ku Klux Klan may also be indicated onstage as a means for the good ol’ boys for W.A.S.P.s to keep upstarts like Vaccaro the Eye-talian Stallion in their place.

The play, with its dark humor, is generally well-acted and ably directed by Simon Levy. Karen Kondazian, an actress with an impeccable Williams pedigree, is appropriately daft as Aunt Rose, who Dunnock had played onscreen, while George Roland has what could be called a “cameo” as the Sheriff. (And I ask you, ladies and germs of the jury, what self-respecting Southern drama is complete without a sheriff?) But at first I had trouble understanding Lindsay Lavanchy’s accent, and like, say, listening to actors from Scotland say their lines in a movie, I had to pay close attention until I finally got used to the lilt and cadence of raunchy Lavanchy’s voice to comprehend Baby Doll’s dialogue.

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Daniel Bess, Lindsay LaVanchy, Karen Kondazian and John Prosky

While some may be amused at how Baby Doll evades and eludes her husband’s grasp, I found this to be tedious. The theme of thwarted sexuality recurs in Williams’ work (think of Brick unable to make love with his sexy wife, Maggie the Cat, in Tin Roof) and to be honest, I find this rather tiresome. Offstage, cockteasers are not amusing (nor, Maggie may purr, are cuntteasers). As I recently wrote in another review about a recent L.A. production of another Tennessee play, the troubled William’s sexual preoccupations seem played out and no longer as cutting edge as they were in the 1940s and 1950s. Call it “Tennessee’s Schmaltz.” This could account for Williams’ losing of his audience in the more sexually liberated sixties and although I’d long regarded him to be among America’s finest playwrights, I may not don my Nikes and dash out to see the next Williams show presented on the L.A. boards.

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In addition to not being age appropriate for children, there is a lot of yelling, banging, gunshots and a fire to boot in this show, so noise-sensitive ticket buyers should take this into account, too. For me, the most outstanding thing about this Fountain version is the rickety set design by multiple Ovation Award winner Jeffrey McLaughlin. It is a far cry from the Burrus House in Benoit, Mississippi, which is where the 1956 film was shot on location and which resembles a plantation big house. Nevertheless, I prefer the seedy hole in the wall that McLaughlin has rendered, which perfectly visually expresses a play wherein, like the ramshackle house, Archie has seen better days. The house seems to be a metaphor for the South itself, which perhaps is along the lines of what Williams himself was getting at. (Although one must not forget that one man’s shack is another’s chateau…)

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The 1956 black and white movie version of Baby Doll had a stellar cast, co-starring Karl Malden as Archie, Eli Wallach as Silva, Carroll Baker as Baby Doll and Mildred Dunnock as Aunt Rose. The latter two received Oscar nominations for, respectively, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, while Williams was nommed for screenwriting and Boris Kaufman (whom I never tire of pointing out was the brother of the great Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov) for cinematography.

Aficionados of Tennessee Williams, dark comedy, drama in general and of cock blocks will likely enjoy this Baby Doll, presented by one of L.A.’s most venerable playhouses, with its upstairs café. Here are some highlights of the Fountain, which has been a distinguished fountainhead for stage works regaling theatergoers since 1990:

  • The world premiere of Exits and Entrances by renowned, Tony Award-winning South African playwright Athol Fugard, was at the Fountain, then moved to Off-Broadway, N.Y. Fugard calls the Fountain “his home on the West Coast” and has entrusted the theatre with world, U.S. and West Coast premieres of his work.
  • The world premiere of Bakersfield Mist, written by Fountain Theatre co-artistic director Stephen Sachs, which was produced in London's West End last year starring Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid.
  • The making of the Fountain’s world premiere production of Sweet Nothing In My Ear, also by Stephen Sachs, into a Hallmark television movie starring Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin (the famed deaf actress).
  • The world premiere of Citizen: An American Lyric, adapted from the book by Claudia Rankine by Fountain Theatre co-artistic director Stephen Sachs, which was just produced in Charleston, South Carolina to commemorate the tragic shooting at Mother Emanuel Church and which will be produced Off-Broadway at Primary Stages as part of their 2016-17 season.

Baby Doll is being performed through Sept. 25 on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m. (note: dark on Aug. 5, 6, 7) at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles CA 90029. For more info: (323)663-1525 or www.FountainTheatre.com.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell