I’ve been living in Tennessee Williams land for the last couple of years, directing two of his lesser known plays, The Strangest Kind of Romance and Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws, the latter in its New York premiere. In the process I’ve formed friendships with a variety of Williams scholars, and a frequent topic of conversation was In Masks Outrageous and Austere.
In Masks Outrageous and Austere was Williams’s last full-length play, unfinished at the time of his death in 1983. In it, an incredibly rich woman, her hustler of a husband and his young male lover are brought to a beautiful seaside where they are kept captive by the sinister Kudzu Chem Corporation. There have been various attempts over the years to reconcile different manuscripts, shepherded most recently by Joe E. Jeffreys, who is listed as dramaturg on this production, the play’s long anticipated world premiere.
I have become very familiar with Williams’s later work in preparation for directing the abovementioned productions, and have to say that while it is quite compelling, Masks still definitely feels unfinished. Now the Cats is as wild and wooly a play, but to me has a stronger and clearer sense of what Williams was attempting to convey. Williams wrote his first drafts in a very raw and instinctual way, and then would work assiduously to rewrite them to better reflect what he wanted to express. Masks is still very raw, not to mention long and somewhat meandering.
Director David Schweitzer is smart enough to exploit this very rawness, pushing the performances to frenzied intensity. There is nothing raw, however, about the design elements in this production. I felt intense “production budget envy” as I entered set designer James Noone’s dazzling LED-dominated environmental set, which reinforces the overall feeling of retro-80s futurism.
The cast give uniformly strong performances, conveying a great many shades of hope and dread, along with the occasional hint of homo-eroticism. As is always the case with Williams, this raw unfinished overlong mess is better than many a well-made play – it just isn’t as polished a jewel as other late Williams.
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To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.