Challenging Late Williams

Tennessee Williams: In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel
292 Theater
March 7-31, Wednesday-Saturday, 8:30 PM

For those who are up to a fascinating venture into an emotionally dark treadmill fun/horror house, one created by Tennessee Williams in 1969, I highly recommend 292 Theater's production of In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel. For those who are merely up to fine theater, I once again recommend experiencing this example of Williams's later oeuvre, where themes of his earlier great plays are explored within the walls of a demure red-toned Tokyo hotel bar in the late '60s.  

The set provides the physical mood: a white clad Bar-Man (Brandon Lim) slowly pulls back screens stage right and left accompanied by soft lounge music, and takes his place behind the bar. The emotional mood is set by the bar's single patron, a midlife woman with too much hair piled up and far too many bracelets, who commences a monolog in which she extolls her seductive abilities. She then proceeds to "come on" to the Bar-Man, whom she considers an easy mark, manipulating him with money and what she assumes is her irresistible appeal. The freak show has commenced, and it compels the audience to pay close attention for the duration of its two acts. At many points in this fine production I kept asking myself, "Where is this going?" but finally relented on my questioning and just let Williams's words and scenario take me to indeterminate yet strangely satisfying destinations.

The play has a plot, which might be almost considered accessory to the action. Miriam (Regina Bartkoff) is in Tokyo with her successful artist husband, Mark (Charles Schick). Mark is experiencing a mental and physical breakdown, destroying, we are told, his hotel room by spraying canvas with paint and squirming his naked body on the wet surface. Miriam, when she tires of being an unsuccessful seductress, cables Mark's agent in New York to fly to Tokyo and take Mark back to the States and get him into a sanitarium. Mark stumbles and falls into the bar, a disheveled mess, saturated with both paint and alcohol--ranting about his great unintelligible discoveries, which he proclaims are the culmination of his life's work, but which come off as the ravings of someone in dire need of sedation and a straitjacket. Several days later, Mark's agent Leonard (Wayne Henry) arrives from New York to hear Miriam's prescription for getting Mark back to New York, and her musings on starting a life without him. She claims to have a plan -- to get Mark into a nut house, sell his still-valuable paintings for a great deal, and live the life of a free and affluent loose lady. There we have it. But is that all?

Williams is experimenting with language, and I loved the fractured dialog and the sentence shards which one could mentally complete because Williams so richly sets up the characterizations. We watch the gritty fight for the essential self of "the artist," (such as he blithers it out) and Miriam's stated quest for some vague life of freedom. In a reasonable world, Miriam's rational (at times) rich "Long Island housewife" could have taken steps to improve her husband's mental health long before the action of the play. But the world of the Tokyo bar is not a reasonable place. Normal restraints have been left behind as unexamined passions and fantasy desires are given full play. It seems we are watching an inverted morality play, where reality is left on a far shore and returns for moments, only to take a vacation yet again as the audience reels in one direction and then another. Miriam has a plan, or so she says -- but we are at the mercy (if one can call it that) of Williams's plan.

Ms. Bartkoff and Mr. Schick do a splendid job in very difficult parts, the demands of which are utterly grisly at times, and also shine as co-directors of this production. Brandon Lim is perfect as the opaque Bar-Man, who maintains his dignity through repeated assaults. Mr. Lim certainly knows his comedy, and also has an opportunity to show his skill in a dance/pantomime sequence artfully choreographed by Liz Piccoli. Wayne Henry's portrayal of Leonard, in full and flagrant Liberace mode, was at first disconcerting, but was presented with a powerful sincerity which totally erased my considerations. The single set stage design by Ron Rangel perfectly created the right atmosphere, in conjunction with the fine sound design by Trystan Trazon. Heather Alexander's hair and makeup for Miriam were delightfully outrageous. When the plot twists momentarily got confusing, I found myself fixating on Miriam's over-the-top set-piece wig -- an anchor of some sort of stability during this challenging play. In addition, Miriam would not have been complete without the abundant bangles provided by Heather Kerr, who also served as properties designer.

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is a mighty theatrical experience. Old-fashioned carnivals would often post a sign at the entrance to the fun/horror house: "Please do not enter if you are faint of heart!" That would apply here as well. But fear not: Mr. Williams's house has horrors, but it also has a great deal of fun. - Jay Reisberg

292 Theatre is at 292 E. Third Street, NYC Tickets: (212) 868-4444 

Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, assistant to the founder of New York's Love Street Theatre, and bon vivant at large.