There’s a degree of masochism inherent in any attempt to revive The Two-Character Play, Tennessee Williams’ opaque, intensely personal experiment in Beckett-style alienation. First performed in 1967, the piece was substantially revised (and retitled, then deretitled) for a couple of short Broadway runs in the 1970s. It’s rarely been seen since, at least until a high-profile New York revival this summer.
There’s a reason this one has seldom been produced, and it isn’t because it requires too many actors. The Two-Character Play is a slog. Too flip? OK, it’s a Rubik’s Cube about a possibly deranged pair of sibling actors locked in a freezing, seemingly abandoned theater in parts unknown, while touring a show called Sister Act: The Mus...no, totally kidding. It’s called The Two-Character Play.
When we see bits of their Southern-fried play-within-the-play—wherein the siblings must refute charges by an insurance company that their parents’ deaths were the result of a policy-negating murder-suicide, except that they can’t seem to leave their house for some reason—Williams might be engaging in self-parody. But Spooky Action’s new production, under the helm of Artistic Director Richard Henrich, doesn’t mine those scenes for levity, or indeed find any other incentive for us to try to decode Williams’ enervating riddle.
Williams had a sister who spent much of her life institutionalized, and he was involuntarily confined himself for a three-month spell in 1969. Perhaps writing this play was therapeutic for him. He insisted it was his best work since A Streetcar Named Desire, and predicted its critics would eventually come around. That was in 1974.
The siblings, Felice and Clare, are here played by David Bryan Jackson and Lee Mikeska Gardner, a former couple that has a son together. They dash themselves on the rocks of Williams’ forbidding text without fear, and I’d love to be able to say their committed performances helped me find a way into this.
In the same spirit, designer J.D. Madsen and scenic artist Betsy Muller have made a game attempt to execute the playwright’s detailed instructions about the set, which includes disused set elements from other shows the characters have performed. An imposing papier-mâché idol looms over the actors from the stage-right boundary. Williams specified that it should have “a sinister look,” but I found its expression more beatific.
In a set of notes that accompanied a 1970 publication of The Two-Character Play, Williams concluded, “These notes are not needed, I should think, to cast light upon any intellectual or philosophical obscurity in the play, since I have never traded in obscurity of that kind.” Protest too much? Thou dost. Thou definitely dost.