The Catastrophe of Success

"The sort of life which I had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was...
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"The sort of life which I had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created."

Any potent and truthful statement about the human condition, when allowed the time, synchronizes itself with the future. Unfortunately Tennessee Williams' words in his essay aptly titled "The Catastrophe of Success" and published only four days before the New York opening of A Streetcar Named Desire take on a bitterly ironic meaning that Williams himself could not have foreseen. Although it's undeniable that Williams is one of the great American playwrights, it is also undeniable that in the end his greatest catastrophe was not his success, but the recurring lack of it on and sometimes off Broadway. The playwright's major successes came within the first 15 years of a prolific, 40-year-long career. He learned to adjust to the catastrophe of success, but the catastrophe of failure after success is an uglier monster not so easily conquered. Another more subtle irony in his words is that they capture what is most enigmatic about Williams' most successful characters and what may be lacking in characters of his not-so-successful productions, such as Something Cloudy, Something Clear, now being produced in the debut season of Horizons Repertory.

The play, Williams' second-to-last and one in a line of failures during the last two decades of his career, is his most autobiographical work. Based on a summer that he spent in Cape Cod, Something Cloudy, Something Clear is a very personal remembrance of a vital time in Williams' life and a short-lived yet intense affair that haunted him.

The drama takes place in a beach shack during the summer of 1940 when August (played by Horizons' artistic director Ed Saunders), a struggling young playwright on the verge of his first Broadway success, is grappling with the rewrite of the second act of his play. He must struggle with maintaining his artistic dignity and pleasing the producers of the show. He meets Kip (played by Daniel Barr), a young, handsome Canadian draft dodger who turns out to be terminally ill, and Clare (Meredith Mursuli), who appears to be a sweet, perhaps overprotective friend but turns out to have her own serious illness, congenital diabetes, and a not-so-pretty past (though nothing shocking to an audience in South Beach, where the Acorns Theater is located). She was a stripper/cocktail waitress and is hiding out from her abusive, club-owner boyfriend Bugsy (played by Ricky Martinez).

Something Cloudy, Something Clear is an obvious reference to August's (and Tennessee Williams') eyes, one of which is clouded with a cataract. Unfortunately it also applies to Horizons' production of the obscure Williams play. From the clear eye, we see a new theater company undertaking an interesting, out-of-the-closet, autobiographical drama of one of America's great playwrights. The script still has some of the lyricism and the nitty-gritty, in-your-face survival instinct that Williams' most enigmatic characters have always possessed. On the cloudy side, the play is missing a crucial component -- a compelling relationship between its two main protagonists, August and Kip. Add to this some uneven characterizations of Kip and Clare, and the cloudy gets worse than murky. It becomes boring.

As August, Saunders is occasionally maudlin, but on the whole he is a convincing Tennessee. He is reclusive and self-loathing, ribald and Southern. The pang he has for Kip comes across well. The varying aspects of the character that Saunders reveals in his interactions with the others (from Clare to a drunken seaman) create an interesting, if not complex, portrait of the artist and the man.

As Caroline, the savvy, sexy actress and coconspirator to the playwright August, Evelyn Perez is magnetic. Her spontaneous performance of the young playwright's work to prove her devotion to him is a highlight in the swamp of monotone to melodramatic monologues that clutter the play. Martinez portrays a gripping Bugsy, the gay-bashing, girlfriend-beating, slimy club owner. Brent Williams as the seaman reveals a broad range for a minor character, from an angry, homophobic drunkard to August's willing apprentice. These performances were so outstanding, in fact, it makes one wonder about Saunders' casting choices for the roles of Kip and Clare.

The main problem is with Kip. One believable aspect of Kip's character is his whiny codependency on Clare. Together they are convincing: the young, beautiful, gay man, awakening to his sexuality and in turns unaware of his sexual power, inseparable from the insecure, nurturing-to-the-point-of-overprotective female friend. Another is that he is physically fit for the part; he has the muscular build and selfless movements of a dancer. But as a character Kip is flat. In fact he's just plain boring. Remember this is the early relationship that haunted Williams for the rest of his days, and he is being played like Adonis with the robotic, suburban personality of a Stepford wife, as he asks August: "Shall I prepare the salad, sir?" Kip is not meant to be compelling for his intelligence or sense of irony, but he does need to be compelling somehow for the play to have its raison d'être. In theatrical roles even voids must be created from something. Kip misses that. One thinks of Marilyn Monroe and how Arthur Miller "created" her. Kip has the charisma of Marilyn Monroe as a dishwater blonde.

Another thing: In the program notes, Kip is depicted as "sexually ambivalent." If Kip's character is supposed to be sexually ambivalent, it doesn't come across. A potential freeloader, yes. A tease, definitely. But mostly he's just plain boring. Since when is "sexually ambivalent" asexual and unemotional?

Two questions arise that may have as much to do with flaws in Williams' character development as with the actors' performances: How is it that Kip's terminal illness reappears after his one night with August, quickly enough that he is collapsing and talking with an intermittent speech impediment? Why is it that when Clare, a middle-class Rhode Island preppy, speaks of her precocious "Alabama girl" sexuality and of "playing house in the attic" with second cousins, she suddenly has a Southern accent? These inconsistencies add more uncertainty to already shaky characters.

The stage is intimate and smartly set up for the space constraints, although the lighting and sound get overdone at the end, when a character has a moment of lucidity or a flashback and a dramatic melody or shadow seems to be catapulted from the back of the room.

In the end one wonders why an enthusiastic young artistic director would choose an obscure Tennessee Williams play, one which was not a big success in its off-off-Broadway debut in 1981. A director chooses to put on the obscure work of a great dramatist in hopes of igniting a fire to a piece that has not received the appreciation it should. I am not sure if Something Cloudy, Something Clear deserves such a revival, but if you are to revive the marginal or obscure, it should be riveting. Otherwise it will be a bigger letdown than a so-so revival of a well-known work. Horizons should be less timid about forging a more concrete and deliberate directional goal: Where is the group trying to go? It would be nice if that were soon something clear.

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