The Two-Character Play

It's hard to avoid ticking off a bunch of European names when writing about Tennessee Williams' Two-Character Play. Specifically, the names of Samuel Beckett, Luigi Pirandello, and the great Harold Pinter. After all, consider the premise of Williams' script: a pair of actors, abandoned by their troupe,  have landed in a run-down theater with an audience expecting a performance. Slipping in and out of the play-within-the-play, they slowly start to reveal the history of violence and disillusionment that has led them here.

This sort of drama, of course, takes many cues from those experimental and absurdist writers toiling in theaters across the Atlantic. But look behind the sheen of stasis and meta-theatricality, and first you'll find a much more American topic--- domestic strife in a living room. You'll also find the human organ so closely associated with Williams: a fragile, compassionate heart. Ultimately, The Two-Character Play belongs to the author himself, and as presented at New World Stages with Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif, this bare work is a passionate argument for the theater as a space to re-enact our most haunting personal demons.

As implied by the title, the brother-and-sister pair known as Clare and Felice comprise the entire cast of the play, which is set on the stage of a decrepit theater "in an unknown state." Felice is a writer as well as an actor, and his text for the siblings this evening seems more than a little autobiographical. In fact, it's an imagining of their childhood home, with an old sofa, a table, a piano, and little else. Clare has agreed only to perform an abbreviated version of the play, and whenever she wants to skip a part, she indicates this by running back to the piano to play a single key. The siblings' sparring, pleading, cajoling, and ultimately their brutal interdependence, is by turns hilarious and devastating.

Plummer and Dourif possess exactly the sort of elastic, ageless energy necessary to sustain a full-length work that is largely devoid of plot in the traditional sense. Plummer is all whimsy and style; Dourif brings the grounded, melancholy wisdom. Together, they reflect the ease of people who've known each other forever, and the unease of people who worry that there are unsavory things left to discover.

The Two-Character play is not, by any means, the breeziest of theatrical evenings. The second act is probably unnecessary, and it can be difficult to follow Clare and Felice's transitions in and out of character. But if you believe, as I do, that the work of a great artist ought to be evaluated in its rough entirety, then this production, directed fluidly by Gene David Kirk, is a gem. In the same way that we occasionally put down our King Lear to dutifully trudge to a production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus or Cymbeline, it is only appropriate that we carve out some time in our theatrical calendar for the less-celebrated dispatches from the mind of this singular American genius.