nytheatre.com review by Chris Harcum
August 22, 2009
Daniel MacIvor has penned a stunning piece about the latter days of Tennessee Williams's life and this production is like a well-crafted handmade watch. All the parts are of high quality, the timing is excellent, and it is always reliable. Fringe-enthusiasts might remember MacIvor's Never Swim Alone, which played here a couple seasons ago. He usually works against realism but has settled into a naturalistic place with His Greatness, a play about a playwright best known for poetic realism trying to make his work more modern while battling critical bashing, box office rejection, and his own demise.
In 1980, the Vancouver Playhouse put on Williams's play The Red Devil Battery Sign, which had not fared well when it was staged in London three years prior. Neither had the playwright, who, by this time, had shed the former glorious version of himself and become a tortured mess. In MacIvor's play, we get an imaginary glimpse into his private world the day of and the day after that Vancouver premiere.
There are three characters: The Playwright, The Assistant, and The Young Man. Their names are never uttered in this mediocre hotel room with a view of the parking lot. The Assistant, a former male prostitute, has been with The Playwright for 15 years and making sure he can function like a human being. He hires an escort, The Young Man, to accompany The Playwright to the opening night and to use the word "brilliant" to describe the writing. Success and failure go up and down as the status of the characters do a number of reversals.
Few playwrights will reach the level of literary titan that Williams did. Few playwrights will know what living decades beyond your time is like. Few people will know what insufferable pains-in-the-ass those washed-out playwrights are. Williams is bitchy, neurotic, and given to bouts of alcoholism and drug use in this play. At moments he displays great wit and charm but then he also attacks with manipulation and derision. There is an aching poetry to his quieter moments that make you feel you are truly in contact with the source of his famously tragic female characters Blanche DuBois and Maggie the Cat. He is broke, earning more money from scattershot teaching engagements than royalties or commissions. Criticism of his current work and comparisons to his previous output send him over the edge.
Peter Goldfarb captures all of these qualities and more with his rendering of The Playwright. I was skeptical at first but was won over by the second minute of his performance. This is this Tennessee Williams, not whatever version you might have in your head. By the end of the evening, I felt like I had spent time experiencing part of someone's life that was supposed to be left hidden. Dan Domingues, who actually bears a strong resemblance to Daniel MacIvor, provides a lot of heart and energy to the drive of this play. He gets in a lot of laughs throughout the evening but if you feel bad about The Playwright's place in the world, then you have to feel worse about The Assistant's. Michael Busillo is equally excellent as The Young Man. His variation on the dumb, midnight cowboy type goes beyond the surface to bring something that is equal parts touching and repulsive. The three work incredibly well off of one another and bring fully-realized human beings to the stage.
Tom Gualtieri's direction is strong. There is never any indulgence and everything is well-executed. Tania Bijlaini's set evokes the spirit of the play. I've been in a hotel room like that, perfectly serviceable but you wouldn't want to live there. The subtle costume choices by Ciera Wells bolster the nuances of the characters and capture three different men's clothing styles of that era. Seth Reiser's lighting brought nuance to the atmosphere. Daniel Kluger's music and sound design work is spot on.
The dialogue is sharp and witty and the plot really moves. I started writing down lines I liked as the play started but quickly found I couldn't keep up. Often the dialogue works on several levels at the same time. MacIvor's use of "his greatness" is slipped in early and I thought it was done but then it is used for each of the three characters with a new shade of meaning every time. This writing is as breathtaking as a well-played tennis match. Simply genius.