Small Craft Warnings
Poor Super Man
By Albert Williams
In a 1974 interview with Cecil Brown, Tennessee Williams recalled a conversation he'd had a couple of years earlier with Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. "He saw my play Small Craft Warnings and we met for lunch the next day," Williams said. "He said to me, 'Tennessee, you have only put 30 percent of yourself into that play. I am not alone in this opinion. Everyone around me is saying the same thing.' I said to him--hahaha--isn't it fortunate that I have 30 percent left!"
It's true that Small Craft Warnings is one of Williams's lesser works--written in the late 60s and early 70s, when he was increasingly dependent on pills and liquor and at one point was institutionalized for a nervous breakdown. But 30 percent of Tennessee Williams is better than 100 percent of most other playwrights. Though this late work lacks the dramatic force of earlier masterpieces such as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, it contains extraordinary moments of yearning eloquence and perverse humor. Wrongly neglected since its 1972 off-Broadway premiere, it's an actors' showcase, and it teems with life in Mary-Arrchie Theatre's terrific revival directed by Michael Hannen.
A two-act rewrite of the 1970 one-act Confessional, Small Craft Warnings is a collection of character sketches--dialogue and soliloquies involving the denizens of a run-down bar on the California coast. Like the "small craft" alluded to in the title, they're isolated vessels lost in a foggy night, drifters seeking temporary refuge in the hazy harbor that is Monk's saloon. As burly but gentle Monk serves up the drinks, each character in his or her turn speaks of the "sadness and sickness" of life; the lucky ones also ruminate on the "one beautiful thing" that gives them the strength to continue. Leona, the blowsy beautician who emerges as the play's protagonist, mourns the anniversary of the death of her brother, a sensitive violinist fatally afflicted by "pernicious anemia"; roused to chair-throwing fury by her feckless lover Bill, an oily stud who sneers that Leona's brother was a "faggot," Leona resolves to dump the lug and head off in search of new moorings. The rejected Bill, who proudly calls his penis "Junior," finds comfort with Violet, a wan drifter who literally gropes for connection, giving hand jobs to chance acquaintances under the tavern's tables in her endless search for "temporary arrangements"; later Violet pairs off with Monk, leading Leona to observe that her onetime rival is "worshiping her idea of God Almighty in her personal church." Meanwhile, Monk's steadiest--and unsteadiest--customer, the barstool philosopher Doc, ruminates on life, death, and the nature of God ("He moves in the dark like...a Negro miner in the pit of a lightless coal mine") before setting out to deliver a baby at the nearby Treasure Island Trailer Court: "I'll have a shot of brandy to wash down a Benzedrine tablet to steady my hands," he declares before setting off to perform the inevitably, fatally botched operation.
The bar's two other principal visitors are Quentin, a middle-aged gay screenwriter, and Bobby, a footloose teenager bicycling from Iowa to Mexico whom Quentin has picked up on the highway. The jaded Quentin was interested in seducing Bobby until the youth returned the gesture, for Quentin can function only with straight "trade" who don't touch him. Openhearted and eager for experience, bisexual Bobby forces Quentin to confront his own lost capacity for astonishment: "There's a coarseness, a deadening coarseness, in the experience of most homosexuals," the older man says in the play's most chilling monologue. "The experiences are quick, and hard, and brutal, and the pattern of them is practically unchanging. Their act of love is like the jabbing of a hypodermic needle to which they're addicted but which is more and more empty of real interest and surprise."
This speech, perhaps the play's most famous, treats with unusual candor a subject Williams veiled in mystery or mystification in such plays as A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly Last Summer. It's often interpreted as a confessional pronouncement by Williams on homosexuality--in general and his own in particular--but that reading misses the conflict that drives not only the Quentin-Bobby interlude but the play as a whole. Though Quentin represents one perspective on gay life, Bobby represents another--edgy and confused, but also optimistic, engaged, and defiant toward both social oppression and the internalized homophobia of Quentin and his kind. Similar contrasts fuel the play's other key relationships, such as Leona's battered but loving compassion versus Bill's brutish selfishness, as played out in their differing attitudes toward pathetic Violet: Leona finds in her a strange holiness, while Bill merely uses her.
Though lacking a titanic clash of wills like the ones that drive Williams's major plays, Small Craft Warnings is powered by the conflict played out among the different figures in this barroom landscape: the ongoing struggle between the life force and the death force--love, hope, and beauty versus cynical lust, despair, and squalor. The great success of Michael Hannen's staging is that it clarifies this battle by treating the dense, sometimes rambling soliloquies as conversations. Passages that read like self-indulgent confession function here as highly charged encounters--sometimes between people, sometimes within one person, as when Leona talks herself into taking a new direction in her life.
There's a ravaged weariness in Williams's writing here, but Hannen and his cast avoid any languid ennui that could give the impression of self-parody in such lines as "I wish my heart could vomit" and "Everyone needs one beautiful thing in the course of a lifetime to save the heart from corruption." Every moment in this production bristles with energy, as the characters test and tangle with one another. The pace is set, as it should be, by the earth-motherly Leona: though Dado, the actress who brought the script to Mary-Arrchie's attention, is much younger and smaller than Williams intended, she's fantastic in the role. I don't use a word like fantastic much, but it's the right one to describe the way she negotiates Leona's lightning-fast mood swings, from drunken crying jag to raging fury to maternal concern, all the while charting the character's gradual path toward the final hard-won victory of her decision to move on.
The rest of the ensemble, if less spectacular in less showy roles, are uniformly superb: Karen Foley, a frightened yet determined Violet, at once carnal and ethereal; Erik Lumbard, an eerily alien presence as Quentin, displaying cutting bemusement and vestigial resentment at his own emotional deadness; Kevin Fox as Bobby, trembling with excited, anxious wonder at the "new vibes" he's beginning to sense in his life; Andrew Rothenberg, smug and cocksure as Bill, smiling at the secret joke he carries with him; Fred Husar as reflective, pragmatic Monk; Daniel J. Michalik as Tony, the corrupt cop Monk routinely bribes with a bottle; Guy Massey as the inebriated, garrulous Doc (the role Williams himself played in the original production, making his acting debut at age 61); and Tim Blevins in a hilarious yet poignant turn as Steve, Violet's falling-down-drunk suitor who buys her dinner--a hot dog of course--and then eats it himself when she hides in the toilet. Kevin Geiger's set and lighting smartly frame the performances with an environment that's half realistic--right down to the stuffed sailfish--and half abstract, with a back wall that seems to float away to the sea.
Canadian playwright Brad Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, which had its U.S. premiere in 1991 at Chicago's now-defunct Halsted Theatre Centre, concerns David, a self-absorbed, self-hating gay man not unlike Small Craft Warnings's Quentin. David strikes up a friendship with a sexually ambivalent youth named Kane--then emotionally abuses the inexperienced boy for presuming to return David's erotic interest. (At least Quentin drops Bobby within a few hours of meeting him; David strings Kane along for weeks before raping, then rejecting him.)
Now David's back, sort of, in Fraser's Poor Super Man, which received its world premiere at the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati in 1994. (Mark Mocahbee, who directed that production, executes the same task here.) He's not actually the same character--that David was an actor-turned-waiter, while the new play's David is a painter-turned-waiter--but he's a variation on his predecessor, with the same hang-ups: he's selfish, bitchy, and attracted to straight-appearing younger men. Unidentified Human Remains's Kane was a restaurant busboy; here Fraser has elevated David's victim to restaurant owner, which I guess is progress. In Poor Super Man the wealthy and well-known David alleviates his artistic block and midlife crisis by going to work at a brand-new cafe owned by Matt and Violet, a twentysomething couple whose marriage is wrecked when David draws Matt into an affair. Then he abuses and dumps him, which Matt would have known would happen if only he'd seen Unidentified Human Remains.
The earlier play gussied up its story of sexual game playing with a lurid subplot concerning a serial killer. Happily Fraser dispenses with suspense-shocker elements this time around, so Poor Super Man can emerge as unencumbered romantic melodrama. It has an AIDS subplot--David's roommate is Shannon, a transsexual who succumbs to AIDS-related cancer--but the play's focus is David and Matt (who may be bisexual or homosexual or just curious). The pair's friendship begins with a shared love of comic books--Matt's a Marvel man, David's a DC devotee. That passion gives Poor Super Man its governing metaphor: like Superman, David has a double identity (pretending to be just a waiter while he uses Matt to jump-start his artistic inspiration), and also like Superman, he's headed for death and rebirth.
The problem is that David's life transformation feels as calculated and manipulative as the "end of Superman" gimmick DC Comics used to boost sagging sales in the early 90s. The story Poor Super Man tells is a truthful one--and it's well acted by Chicagoans Jeffrey Hutchinson (David) and K.J. Steinberg (Violet) and by Damian Baldet (Matt), David Schaplowsky (Shannon), and Annie Fitzpatrick (Kryla), holdovers from the Cincinnati premiere--but it comes off as contrived because of its gratuitous sex scenes (which add nothing except the gimmick of full frontal male nudity), because of the cute little projected supertitles that provide subtext for Fraser's shallow dialogue (a caption says "no" when a liar says "yes," for example), and because of Fraser's overreliance on coincidences (Matt's restaurant just happens to be near Shannon's doctor's office to facilitate "chance" encounters) and glib, campy pop-culture references (Betty Rubble, Jackie Collins, etc).
I don't think there are any such references in Small Craft Warnings--which leads one to speculate on how Tennessee Williams would have developed as a writer if he'd grown up on TV. I do know the references trivialize Fraser's writing, and with it the characters. The conflicts of Williams's pathetic lowlifes convey a sense of universality that makes Small Craft Warnings moving and memorable despite its flaws, while the traumas of Poor Super Man's troubled trendies make for glib but forgettable soap opera.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo from "Small Craft Warnings", by Daniel Guidara.