Wednesday, April 04, 2018

As an Imagined True Story About Two Legendary Playwrights, Raven's 'Gentleman Caller' Fascinates -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Gentleman Caller
a world premiere play
by Philip Dawkins
directed by Cody Estle
Raven Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 27

I have seen many a middling play by many an acclaimed playwright, so to have great respect for the art ... and appreciation for the challenge of penning something others--including critics--will love.

To do so on commission probably adds to the pressure.

And to write a play with just two characters, who just happen to be two of the greatest American playwrights in history, imagining the circumstances, conversation and sexual tension that supposedly existed in encounters between the two--but haven't ever to my knowledge been documented--well, that has to be damn daunting.

But the Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins, abetted by strong performances by Rudy Galvan as Tennessee Willams and Curtis Edward Jackson as William Inge, pulls it off in a rare self-commissioned world premiere production by the Raven Theatre.

And beyond being an engrossing 2-1/2 hour play that covers almost every emotion in the book, The Gentleman Caller--already slated for an Off-Broadway production--is at its core a work about finding the inspiration, motivation, encouragement, balls or whatever else necessary to do something daunting, whether in one's personal or professional pursuits.

Directed by the Raven's new artistic director, Cody Estle--who himself rather daringly has made this somewhat audacious piece essentially his opening salvo--The Gentleman Caller begins with Galvan as Williams rather cheekily breaking the fourth wall and speaking to the audience.

This establishes that what we're about to see is a fundamentally fictionalized version of things that may well have happened (based on what history does know).

On the precipice of The Glass Menagerie--originally titled The Gentleman Caller--opening in Chicago and soon making him quite acclaimed and famous, in November 1944 St. Louis resident Tennessee Williams comes to the "not so garden apartment" of Bill Inge (as in hinge), for an interview with the then arts critic for the St. Louis Star-Times.

While Williams is, and remains--through the show and seemingly throughout his real life--openly gay and confidently debonair, Inge is--onstage here and presumably off--knowingly gay but quite closeted and uptight.

The sexual tension between the two emotionally-different men is apparent--and central to the play--but it is rather surprising when one essentially attempts to rape the other fairly early in the first act, although laughter soon ensues.

I don't have the wherewithal to know how biographically accurate the characterizations of Williams and Inge are, but it's a dramatic delight to see the overtly outward former--in a gleefully great performance by Galvan--push the buttons of the exceedingly inward latter. (That homosexuality was perceived far differently in 1944 than today is a reality that hangs over both characters.)

On a set designed by Jeffrey D. Kmiec, Act Two moves about 6 weeks forward to a hotel room in Chicago, where the two writers meet again after The Glass Menagerie has charmed the Chicago Tribune's notoriously tough theater critic, Claudia Cassidy.

This will set Williams on his way to becoming one of the holy trinity of American 20th Century playwrights--alongside Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller--with such classics as A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer (which the Raven will stage next), Sweet Bird of Youth and Night of the Iguana.

Within the rather brief time frame of The Gentleman Caller, Inge is not yet a published playwright, but by 1950 his Come Back, Little Sheba would appear on Broadway, and--threatening to eclipse Williams for awhile--Picnic would earn a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1953. (Incidentally, the Broadway production largely introduced a young Paul Newman to the world, and over the next decade, he'd appear in Williams' film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Broadway production of Sweet Bird of Youth.)

I won't share any more about what The Gentlemen Caller intimates about Williams' and Inge's romantic and sexual entanglement, or spell out what goes down to help propel Inge in his playwriting career. But to provide a bit of helpful historical context I think it fair to note this blurb from Wikipedia:

"With Tennessee Williams's encouragement, Inge wrote his first play, Farther Off from Heaven."

So while accepting that it may not all be truth, The Gentleman Caller helped me get to better know two esteemed playwrights, perhaps with greater acuity than biographical plays or movies that aim to cover a subject's entire life. (I would love to see similar "conjecture works" about John Lennon and Paul McCartney meeting in 1974, and the times Miles Davis and John Coltrane teamed up and split up, musically.)

And making this play powerful on a contemporary, psychological and universal level is the way it tackles the notion of daring to do that which is daunting.

Having greatly enjoyed The Gentleman Caller, I'm glad Dawkins, Estle, the Raven and all involved indeed did.

And I admire this estimable new play all the more so for it. 

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