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    Small Craft Warnings

    Troubled Waters

    White Horse Theater Company mount an impressive, if quixotic, attempt at redeeming Tennessee Williams's little-known "Small Craft Warnings."


    In "Small Craft Warnings," lost souls spend a long, foggy night in a squalid bar in Southern California, with the wind roaring outside, no real reason to be there, and no real reason to leave. Tennessee Williams wrote the play in 1971, ten years after his long-time lover, Frank Merlo, died of cancer, at a time when most scholars agree he was not at the top of his game. It’s relatively plotless, especially if you’re hungry for the lurid Southern Gothic delights of "A Streetcar Named Desire" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Like Williams other post-1960 work, it is pockmarked by the effects of his drug and alcohol addiction and his growing misery — he initially wrote it in one act, then stretched it, not always successfully, into its current form. It has some beautiful, unmistakably Tennessee Williams language and a pile of characters who remind you that no one does American tragedy like this master, but in some ways it’s more a grim, autobiographical exercise than a play. Watching a bad production of "Small Craft Warnings" would be like seeing an early episode of Cheers as written by Samuel Beckett.

    Company: White Horse Theater Co..
    Written by: Tennessee Williams.
    Directed by: Cyndy A. Marion.
    Cast: Graham Anderson, Peter Bush, Tommy Heleringer, Christopher Johnson, Andrea Maulella, Patrick Terance McGowan, Linda S. Nelson, Mark Ransom and Rod Sweitzer.

    Related links: Official site
    Workshop Theater
    312 W. 36th St., 4th fl. (btw. 8th & 9th Ave.)
    Sept. 19 - Oct. 5, 2008

    Luckily, the White Horse Theater Company’s production is not bad. Artistic Director Cyndy Marion, a fan of Sam Shepherd and Adam Rapp, seems determined to bring Williams’ most neglected plays to the stage. Last year, she directed "In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel" (1968), which is less alluring and more experimental than his earlier masterworks. Now,like a Shakespeare scholar hell-bent on staging King John, Marion plunges as deeply as possible into the flawed text of "Small Craft Warnings," relishing its challenges.

    This production’s fidelity to Williams’s script and stage directions is staunch — the look of the bar, the uneven lighting, and the foggy atmosphere of the seaside town are all rendered just as Williams describes them. As in all Williams plays, the character descriptions are so rich that you can tuck into a bourbon, alone, and read them like a novel. It’s lovely to see them brought to life so faithfully.

    Small Craft Warnings  
    Bar regular Violet (Andrea Maulella) is described in the script as having eyes too large for her face. “They are usually moist: her appearance suggests a derelict sort of existence; still, she has about her a pale, bizarre sort of beauty. As Leona Dawson later puts it, she’s like a water plant.” Maulella completely embodies Violet in every scene. Bill (Rod Sweitzer) has, according to Williams, “an overrelaxed amiability like a loser putting up a bold front: by definition, a stud — but what are definitions?” He has “a hustler’s smile, the smile of a professional stud — now aging a bit but with considerable memorabilia of his young charm.” Quentin (Christopher Johnson), an effetely-dressed stranger who shows up at the bar with an attractive boy, Bobby (Tommy Heleringer), is described as having a quality of “sexlessness, not effeminacy. Some years ago, he must have been remarkably handsome. Now his face seems to have been burned thin by a fever that is not of the flesh.” The Quentin character is a stew of homosexual self-hatred. The blousy Leona (Linda S. Nelson), who never stops pontificating, riding a drunken roller coaster from angry to maudlin, is ultimately just a device to deepen the various plotlines (such as they are.) All of the characters are, in fact, like drunken ghosts from Williams’ earlier plays or fragments from his life, and these actors inhabit their broken humanity with relish.

      As in all Williams plays, the character descriptions are so rich that you can tuck into a bourbon, alone, and read them like a novel. It’s lovely to see them brought to life so faithfully.
    Williams takes on favorite themes with a candor that would have been impossible twenty years earlier, yet "Small Craft Warnings" is resolutely dated, fixed in a certain time and place. “I know the gay scene,” Leona tells Quentin, “I learned it from my kid brother … I know how full it is of sickness and sadness; it’s so full of sickness and sadness I could almost be glad my brother died before he had time to be infected with all that sadness and sickness in the heart of a gay boy. This kid from Iowa, here, reminds me a little of how my brother was, and you, you remind me of how he might have become if he’d lived.” Quentin answers bitterly, “Yes, you should be relieved he’s dead, then.” If "Small Craft Warnings" seems at first to be a portrait of these different miserable bar dwellers, it circles in on itself, becoming a smaller and smaller story until it is, finally, the story of Monk, the bar owner, and what he wants from this life.

    All of the characters are, in fact, like drunken ghosts from Williams’ earlier plays or fragments from his life, and these actors inhabit their broken humanity with relish.  

    Violet describes her life situations, over and over, as “a temporary arrangement.” In "Small Craft Warnings," there’s something transient and derelict about all of the characters, even the most upbeat. Despite the play’s humor, the high spirits of the production, and the occasionally strong script, "Small Craft Warnings" is, like its characters, something of a lost cause. It’s a fascinating document from Williams’ life, like a missing page from his diary. As a play, it stays adrift, never finding its way home through the fog.

    SEPTEMBER 21, 2008

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