Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws

Imagine Mad Men on LSD, add a dash of Beckett, stir in a watusi or two….and you get an idea of what Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws is like. This wonderful, wacky and weird play from Tennessee Williams’s experimental later period is making its New York premiere at LaMaMa, following a sold-out run at Provincetown.

Williams's script combines several jarring styles. At once lyrical and obscene, it mixes heady symbolism with banal reality. Ladies who lunch find themselves sharing a grubby café with a pair of young hustlers…a café that becomes a portal to their innermost fears and desires. Dialogue gives way to song, song melts into dance, and what started as a glittering comedy transforms into a dreamlike meditation on mortality.

I was startled by just how Beckettian the dialogue could be—raw scraps of half-finished sentences and mysterious, unanswered questions—all darkly funny and existential. Here’s an exchange between the lunching ladies Madge and Bea, after Bea recounts stabbing shoppers with her hatpin on the crowded sidewalks:

BEA: …..So here we are.
MADGE: To be anywhere.
BEA: When traffic is paralyzed in all directions. Name it.
MADGE: An urban problem.
BEA: I dream of the aerial city, floating above, celestial.
MADGE: Urban problems confronting.
BEA: In our time or after our.
MADGE: Transfiguration. But hold onto that hatpin.
BEA: I’d never dream of.
MADGE: A public emergence without it?
BEA: Just look at that street of infuriated shoppers.
MADGE: It’s a sight to be seen that’s obscene. But! Serenity will descend…
BEA: When the bomb is dropped. Waitress!

Under Jonathan Warman’s direction, actors Mink Stole (Madge) and Regina Bartkoff (Bea) deliver these lines in a brisk near-monotone, facing out. Such presentational style adds to the play’s innate strangeness. Indeed, in many instances, Warman and his team up Williams’s avant-garde ante. The script calls for a trumpet to announce each entrance of the mysterious Hunched Man; in this production that cue’s been altered to demented ice-cream truck bells. When the Second Young Man berates his lover for becoming hysterical in public, his scripted monologue is now an aria, taking advantage of actor Joseph Keckler’s classical voice training. And the final few moments are now a trippy, tinseled ballet that’s as frightening as it is inevitable. In all, Warman more than matches the piece’s phantasmagorical style, even if he doesn’t always illuminate its multiple meanings. (Though to be fair, given the script’s mélange of styles, that just might be impossible).

Warman elicits exquisite performances from his cast that are at once real and larger-than-life. As Madge, Mink Stole is wryness personified, while Regina Bartkoff’s wiry Bea nearly steals the show during an athletic dance break cleverly choreographed by Liz Piccoli. Erin Markey somehow makes the very pregnant Waitress as tragic as she is sarcastic, while Everett Quinton brings Shakespearean grandeur to the musings of the sleazy Manager. Max Steele’s First Young Man is a hustler as knowing as he is vulnerable, while Joseph Keckler displays his razor-sharp comic timing and operatic voice as the Second Young Man. Charles Schick lends winsome strangeness to the mysterious Hunched Man, who just may be a harbinger of death.

In all, this is a fascinating production of a rarely-performed crazy quilt of a play—something well-worth seeing for devotees of Williams and the avant-garde alike.