Soon after Tennessee Williams finished writing his last great play, The Night of the Iguana, in 1961, America's preeminent dramatic poet plunged into a severe decline marked by acute drug and alcohol dependency, extended periods of mental illness for which he was hospitalized, and macabre public appearances where he seemed unable to walk more than a few steps without falling over. This odyssey culminated with his bizarre 1983 death in a New York City hotel room.
It comes as no surprise, then, that even though Williams continued his habit of writing every day, he crafted few plays of note during those final 22 years. In fact, most of Williams's later works, including the seldom-seen In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, form a sort of crumbling, self-referential mosaic that depicts a wounded dramatist at odds with his elusive creative muse, his fragile sense of self and, at times, society in general. And while the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art's production of Tokyo Hotel lacks the bravura acting that's possible when portraying any of Williams's fabled neurotics (in plays both good and bad), the near-two-hour show nonetheless illuminates a sensitive and vulnerable artist's futile attempt to liberate himself from the stranglehold of creative stagnation.
As the play begins, we're introduced to a barman (Sachin Piplani) and his sole customer, Miriam (Dee Covington), a flighty, middle-aged American seductress who's decided to drink, flirt and babble away her Tokyo "vacation." Declaring to Miriam that he's "engaged and not faithless," the Japanese barkeep tries to humor his patron with harmless small talk even as he maintains a discreet distance from the sexually frustrated woman's crotch-grabbing clutch. As Miriam expounds upon various themes ("Reverence is something I am happy to leave in the hands of the reverent" is about as profound as she ever gets), we learn that her painter husband, Mark (Judson Webb), is holed up in a separate room working through a new-found creative phase that he's loath to interrupt. (He's evidently "just discovered color with a spray gun," according to Miriam.) What's worse, the intense artiste, who later comes down to the bar, is plagued with a severe case of the drunken tremors, refuses to go stateside because a long plane ride is "too long to hold an image." As he stares into the floor, Mark briefly touches upon Williams's underlying theme when he mutters, "An artist has to lay his life on the line." Before long the warring couple are joined by Leonard (Steve Grad), a well-to-do gallery owner who's arrived in Tokyo to help sort out Miriam and Mark's predicament.
To his credit, director Kevin Causey elicits a series of portrayals that effectively convey Williams's sardonic, self-parodying humor. Grad, for instance, imbues his no-nonsense, delightfully pretentious art dealer with a welcome tragicomic perspective: "Take this handkerchief and pretend to cry," he says to Miriam near the end of the play. Despite the fact that Piplani's thick Indian accent belies the bartender's expressed pride in being a product of traditional Japanese culture, the affable performer makes the most of his character's frequent comic episodes. And as both halves of Williams's not-so-subtle self-portrait, even Covington and Webb manage to deliver the occasional comic barb with flair.
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However, all of the performers experience difficulty with the playwright's scenes of fleeting poeticism. Part of the problem is that Williams's dialogue consists of partial sentences and fragments, which are evidently meant to lend a sense of argument to his veiled confessional. But rather than orchestrate a free flow of conversation, Causey inexplicably draws attention to Williams's delicate structure by directing the actors (Covington, in particular) to emphasize the last word in many of their incomplete lines. As a result, it's hard to remain focused on the occasional nuance or turn of phrase when they're all but overshadowed by the performers' misdirected technique. (On opening night, director Causey gave a pre-show mini-lecture in which he warned theatergoers, most of whom were clad in obligatory Arts R Us black, not to expect the sort of florid language found in Williams's earlier plays; a short, unpretentious program note would have sufficed.)
Still, Causey and company succeed in providing an insightful backward glance at a troubled writer's battle with the demons that both inspired and destroyed him. As Williams remarked late in life, "Everything a writer produces is his inner history, transposed to another time." In this age of self-absorbed, self-important creative types, that's a shrewd observation that seems eminently worth heeding.
In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, through November 29 at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, 1750 13th Street, Boulder, 303-443-2122.