June 22, 2024

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Review: This ‘Night of the Iguana’ Is Williams Without the Excess

A new revival directed by Emily Mann and starring Tim Daly leans into its flailing characters’ confusions.

Theater Online: While not his most elegant work, Tennessee Williams’s “The Night of the Iguana,” about a group of lost souls at a coastal hotel in 1940s Mexico, is not without its misty pleasures. Even as his characters stumble tragically in search of meaning, their convictions carry the sharp-tongued certainty of soap opera idols. But a new revival from La Femme Theater at the Signature Center mires itself too deeply in its characters’ confusions to let the edges of his language shine.

It’s an issue of confidence, with Emily Mann directing her cast away from Williams’s assured dialogue and toward their characters’ flailing. And this play, with a defrocked minister who now leads Baptist church ladies on unreliable bus tours at its center, already has plenty of flailing.

Plagued by nervous breakdowns, the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (Tim Daly) is grasping at straws when he brings his ersatz flock to the cheap hotel run by his friend, the sultry Maxine (Daphne Rubin-Vega). Calling God a “senile delinquent” during a mid-sermon lapse in belief got him fired; his statutory rape of a 16-year-old on the trip could mean worse, and the girl’s chaperone (Lea DeLaria) is already rushing to phone the authorities.

Like many of the playwright’s antiheroes, Shannon is disheartened by the world’s hypocrisy while also contributing to it. These contradictions are typically enlivened by the kind of fiery speechifying an actor can chew heartily, but “Iguana” is Williams in bold, underlined red ink: Shannon goes on about feeling hopeless and at the end of his rope, then later says as much about the panicking iguana caught and tied to a post by two hotel workers. No need for SparkNotes.

His pleas need spirit, if only of desperation, and Daly, in a verbally stumbling performance, does not convey someone with the power to seduce with ease. This hesitation extends to most of the ensemble, who struggle with the cadence of Williams’s writing, except for the unflinching DeLaria and, as a hippie-ish painter named Hannah, Jean Lichty.

Like Shannon, Hannah is a hustler with lofty spiritual ambitions, traversing the world trading watercolors and recitations for hotel rooms with her aging poet grandfather (Austin Pendleton, whose adequacy with the play’s rhythms is undermined by the brevity of his time onstage). Shannon and Hannah’s near act-length conversation in the show’s second half, as she attempts to calm him down from the ledge, comes closest to achieving its intended discourse on freedom and redemption thanks to the surety with which Lichty imbues her character.

It might be that, in trying to demystify Williams’s extravagance to get at its emotional core, Mann has thrown the priest out with the holy water. It’s possible to strip away the surfaces of the playwright’s worlds — a revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” last year did away with its Old South glamour and still got its point across — but not the excesses they need to reach their delicious boiling points.

Traces of those remain, like Jeff Croiter’s tropical lighting, Beowulf Boritt’s stilted, shabby-chic set, and Rubin-Vega’s unshakable earthiness. But they don’t compensate for the play’s weaker elements, like two giddy German tourists (Alena Acker and Michael Leigh Cook) whose sporadic, Nazi-praising appearances are a thudding example of the duplicity Shannon rails against, in this case aimed at Maxine for renting them rooms.

Williams wants it both ways in those moments, validating his protagonist’s gripes even as he condemns him. The gambit is not impossible, but is one that needs a production more convincing, more drunk on its own pretensions, to really win over a congregation.

Source: nytimes