Tennessee Williams scholars and melodrama buffs will be quick-marching over to the Brown/Trinity Rep performance of his early Vieux Carré (at the Pell Chafee Performance Center through December 19). The acting is good and the directing by Kristopher Lenkowski is attentive. However, the playwright at his best never subtle, and here he is at his self-indulgent height.
CLOSE ENCOUNTER Chum and Berry in Vieux Carré.
Williams wrote 25 full-length plays and 70 one-acts; Vieux Carré might have served him and his audiences better refashioned as several of the latter. It's a stitched-together and interlinked series of set pieces and, while references to loneliness come up a lot, the 2-1/2-hour play's structure is less an arc than a dotted line.
Williams started it in his late 20s when he first moved to New Orleans, and worked on it for nearly four decades. A memory play filled with eccentric characters, it opens like the later The Glass Menagerie, with the person at the center, identified only as the Writer (Vichet Chum), briefly introducing himself before turning to the action. Scenic designer Jarrod Bray encloses the proceedings in the derelict walls of a present building, with foliage intruding, as recollected inhabitants strut and fret.
Unlike Williams, who got a job in the colorful city writing for the WPA, his stand-in remains poor. For meals he has to hand out cards to tourists in the French Quarter — another name for the Vieux Carré — advertising 25-cent lunches prepared by his ill-tempered landlady, Mrs. Wire (Tiffany Nicole Greene) and her ill-treated helper, Nursie (Rachel Christopher).
Mrs. Wire is such a controlling dragon lady with her boarding house tenants, all but one of whom are impoverished, that she places her bed at the front door so she can monitor comings and goings. For example, she keeps the gay Nightingale (Chris Berry) from going upstairs with a pickup (John Tracey). Nightingale turns his attentions to the Writer who, while expressing uncertainty over his sexual orientation, is far too enthusiastic relating a successful encounter (with a paratrooper, no less) that we don't doubt what team he wants to play for.
These denizens are types, caricatures rather than characters. So we also have two shabby women, Mary Maude (Charlotte Graham) and a gap-toothed Carrie (Jaselyn Blanchard). They are slowly starving, scavenging from garbage cans while pretending what they find are leftovers from restaurant meals. In a darkly humorous touch, they are writing a Creole cookbook, from memories of family recipes.
The couple we see most are Jane (Olivia D'Ambrosio), stuffy from being well-bred and well-educated, and Tye (Terrell Donnell Sledge), who strips in a nightclub but otherwise is supported by Jane. Like Brick in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, Tye is crude, not hesitating to rub his groin in front of company.
As for the one recollecting all of this, we occasionally get disconnected bits of background that remain undeveloped, gaining none of their potential emotional charge. He still loses sleep over the death of his grandmother just before he left St. Louis, for example. And his cataract being operated on is mentioned only in passing, leaving us to guess how important that is to him.