In Tennessee Williams’ The Two-Character Play, the brother-and-sister acting team of Felice (David Bryan Jackson) and Clare (Lee Mikeska Gardner) are backstage, ready to open “The Two-Character Play” in which they play two agorophibic siblings, Felice and Clare whose lives have been defined by a childhood tragedy: their father shot and killed their mother and then shot and killed himself. Or, perhaps, their mother shot and killed their father, and then shot and killed herself, a better story for insurance purposes. Or maybe one of the children shot them both, and is prepared to kill a sibling in real time. Or possibly there is no “Two-Character Play” at all and Felice and Clare are acting out an echo of the central event of their whole doomed lives in an effort to grab control of it, and them.
In short, if you are an enemy of ambiguity, and demand clearly defined, definitively resolved plotlines, The Two-Character Play will be a challenge. For the rest of us, though, it is a mostly delicious mystery, and in Spooky Action’s production, sturdy and delicate, breathlessly frantic and exquisitely paced.
This might also be a description of Williams, whose centennial we celebrated two years ago. Late in life he dabbled in experimental theater (you may remember WSC Avant Bard’s The Gnadiges Fraulein in 2011) and among those experiments he liked this one the best. He worked on it for ten years (there are a couple of other versions, including one under the name Out Cry) and said it was the best thing he had done since Streetcar.
It’s a hard play to do, but when done well, as it is here, you can see why Williams was so proud of it. Emerging from the bowels of a frigid, drafty, unnamed theater Felice starts us off with a meditation on fear, and then his dyspeptic, dipsomaniacal sister joins him for a ten minute spat. Their tour is on the ropes, the company has been unable to make payroll and their stage crew has left them a half-completed, hole-ridden living room for a set. (The actual set, headed by designer JD Madsen, is a magnificent job). A dour paper-mache giant, apparently from another play, sits stage right.
So we appear to be in for a comedy about theater, along the lines of Noises Off or Mamet’s A Life in the Theater. But then Felice and Clare the actors become Felice and Clare the characters, and the freezing stage becomes the sweltering Southern home of two hectic, badly damaged siblings. The comedy drops away and we are in a Southern Gothic melodrama, full of gestures and exposition. (Williams here might be poking fun of some of his earlier plays, which tended toward melodrama).
Neither of these forms of theater are particularly satisfying by themselves, but they transfuse each other with a manic energy, and the result is delightful. Felice and Clare are dreadful actors – constantly forgetting and tripping over lines, losing their places, and letting their real-life hostility overwhelm their obligations to the play – and their production is so cheap and cheesy that when a scene is to be overlaid by music, Felice walks over to a tape recorder at the foot of a couch and turns it on.
These dreadful actors are played by Jackson and Gardner, among the best actors in Washington, and they give us a full dollop of their talent in this production. With the precision of watchmakers, they each show us two distinct Felices, two distinct Clares, through their voices, through their postures, through the muscles of their faces. But they do more than this: they give us distinct characters who bleed into each other, as Williams surely intended – at once making us understand the limitations Felice and Clare have as actors and sweetening the ambiguity of the production.
The Two-Character Play
Closes October 27, 2013
Spooky Action Theater
1810 16th St NW
1 hour, 45 minutes with 1 interval
Thursdays thru Sundays
We have come to expect first-class work from Gardner, who is a Helen Hayes laureate and who Terry Teachout once compared to Edie Falco, and not in Falco’s favor. But Jackson – whose work as an actor is just one of the extraordinary things he has done – is a revelation. Shrewd and controlling one moment, sizzling with fear the next, he seems like a man who keeps his head from exploding only through superhuman effort – and then, becoming Felice the character, does exactly the same thing in a completely different way.
Once The Two-Character Play, the production, ends (for reasons I’ll not share here) and we are back with Felice and Clare the actors, things get a little gassy, and the energy diminishes considerably until The Two-Character Play, the play, comes to its conclusion. I won’t share that with you, either. You’ll have to see it for yourselves.
The Two-Character Play by Tennessee Williams, directed by Richard Henrich, featuring David Bryan Jackson and Lee Mikeska Gardner, Set design by JD Madsen . Lighting design by Brian S. Allard . Sound design by David Crandall . Costume design: Kimberly Parkman . Properties: Pallas Bane . Fight choreography . Tuyet Pham . Stage manager: Lena Salins . Produced by Spooky Action Theater . Reviewed by Lorraine Treanor.