Monday, October 01, 2012

Luminous Diane Lane Elevates 'Sweet Bird of Youth' in Fine-Feathered Fashion -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Sweet Bird of Youth
a play by Tennessee Williams
directed by David Cromer
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 28

Though this is far fainter praise than Sweet Bird of Youth deserves, if nothing else it is eons more enjoyable than the last Tennessee Williams play I saw at the Goodman Theatre. Whereas Camino Real, just three mainstage productions ago, was an abstract—and completely incomprehensible—mess that nearly caused me to cancel my subscription, Sweet Bird of Youth not only helped to prompt my renewal, but proved to be redeemingly entertaining if itself imperfect.

I had initially seen Sweet Bird in a critically-acclaimed production at Chicago’s Artistic Home theater a couple years ago. Then too, I thought the play was worthwhile, but a solid notch below Williams’ holy trinity of The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (though at the time I hadn’t yet seen the latter).

Ostensibly, the play is about a wanton gigolo pushing 30 named Chance Wayne who returns to his Gulf Coastal hometown in hopes of reclaiming the glories of his youth—both figurative, in terms of being the town’s hottest young stud and aspiring actor, and more literally concerning an ex-girlfriend named Heavenly.

Chance’s ticket to ride—again both literally and figuratively—back into St. Cloud is a no longer quite so glamorous movie star named Alexandra Del Lago, who has dubbed herself the Princess Kosmonopolis.

As reflected by the show’s ticket design, printed before the Goodman’s casting was announced, Chance is rather clearly the play’s central character, with his ever-loosening grip on a meaningful existence being what I see as the drama’s essence.

Without any disrespect to the fine Artistic Home production, there I felt the interaction between Chance and Princess—including almost exclusively in an hourlong first act (of 3)—wasn’t all that compelling and would’ve preferred more direct confrontation between Chance, Heavenly and her controlling, belligerent father, Tom “Boss” Finley, a powerful local politician.

But then the Goodman and noted director David Cromer cast Diane Lane, a real-life glamorous movie star who at 47 is a few years beyond above-the-title leading roles, and the dynamic changed. And not just in the design of the promotional materials (see the program cover above).

Quite frankly, while Broadway and TV veteran Finn Wittrock is quite good as Chance and spends much time displaying his impressive physique, the still luminous Lane is the primary reason one should seek a ticket to Goodman’s production.

At least through binoculars from the balcony, the actress long-acclaimed as one of Hollywood’s most beautiful looked quite lovely, even with Princess Kosmonopolis intended to appear rather addled and past her prime. But far from being merely eye-pleasing, Lane—and it’s been a pretty good year for that marquee surname at Goodman—demonstrated that she’s also a terrific stage actress.

Though the story is still primarily Chance’s, the paramount performance is Lane’s—not just due to her fame coming in, though the real-life parallels are hard to ignore and add gravitas—and served to better justify why Williams devotes so much time to the let’s-use-each-other relationship between Chance and the Princess.

While the play, and performances, sufficiently entertain throughout, Act I—comprised almost solely of Chance and the Princess in a hotel room—feels a bit long and talky. For both dramatic and pragmatic reasons, it seemingly might have made more sense to weave the 20-minute Act II into Act I with a split stage approach.

As it stands—and as explained in Chris Jones’ Tribune review; I can’t claim to have noticed—Cromer supposedly redistributed a chunk of Williams’ second act into Act III here. With my Swiss cheese memory not enabling me to specifically recall how this was handled at Artistic Home, I can't intelligently comment on how this choice altered the play's arc, but having two 15-minute intermissions sandwich a 20-minute second act seemed somewhat silly.

The last act is the most dramatically rich and strongly embellishes the themes and storylines of Chance’s desperation and self-denial, and that for better or worse, Alexandra del Lago is at heart an actress, reconfiguring the Princess' vulnerabilities and viciousness  around the vacillation of her cues.

Originally done on Broadway in 1959 starring Paul Newman and Geraldine Page—who reprised their roles in the 1962 movie—Sweet Bird of Youth is frequently referenced as a play about fading beauty. This isn't inaccurate, but hand-in-anguished-hand, the show is just as much a meditation on fleeting purpose.

Though far from his worst play—and if Camino Real wasn’t it, I don’t want to see it—I still don’t feel Sweet Bird of Youth approaches Tennessee Williams’ very best. And while the multiple stage sets are all quite impressive, if David Cromer put a substantive personal stamp on this production, I’m not astute enough to have appreciated it.

But abetted by strong performances throughout, including by Wittrock in the true leading role, Diane Lane’s star turn—in both her fictional portrayal and an impressively authentic performance—is what truly makes this Sweet Bird soar.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughtful review of "Sweet . . . Youth." On a whim, I purchased a pricy Sunday matinee (10/14) ticket before the play opened. I live some distance from Chicago (2.5 hours) and now I can't decide whether it's worth all of the hassle. Going into it (the whim), I knew Bird isn't Williams best. I've never seen the film or seen the play. Still, I love Williams and love the Goodman. Hmmm.....