Here’s a question for playwright/performer William Shuman: What’s a genteel little play like yours doing in a place like the New York International Fringe Festival?
The play in question is a one-man show called En Avant! An Evening With Tennessee Williams. It is a loving tribute to the great playwright, with none of the quirkiness or metaphysical meanderings associated with many of the Fringe offerings.
Fans of Mr. Williams will find much to admire in this 75-minute monolog (directed by Ruis Woertendyke)—in turns informative, insightful, gossipy, and introspective—as Mr. Shuman takes on the persona of Mr. Williams, who, according to the program, is joining us from a world he inhabits somewhere “between here and heaven” three decades after his death.
The set is simple: A wicker chair, a table with a decanter of liquor that gradually diminishes in volume during the course of the play, and another table holding a typewriter and copies of some of Mr. Williams’s work.
When first he appears, dressed in a white suit and blue shirt, Mr. Shuman as Mr. Williams is somewhat diffident, seemingly surprised to see us and even more surprised to learn that we still remember him. “I’m gonna fix myself a little drink, then we can spend some time together,” he says, and then proceeds to pour the first of many such little drinks that will fuel the conversation.
He starts with the safe stuff: something about his early life, a tidbit about an ancestor named Preserved Fish Dakin, how he underwent the name change from Tom to Tennessee, his early writing efforts and successes. This all feels like well-honed audience material, something for the talk shows and public speaking engagements.
But as he warms to the task (and as the alcohol begins to provide that famous “click” he talks about in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof), he opens up about his difficult father (“the man in the overstuff chair”), whom he says treated him contemptibly and referred to him as “Miss Nancy.” He also speaks of some of the other men in his life—Kip, his first love, and Frank, whom he walked away from. He admits that he was not able to commit himself to any relationship for very long (“We fucked and we fought for a year and a half, and then I couldn’t take it.”)
He talks of the actress Laurette Taylor, struggling to overcome a 15-year drinking binge (“the longest wake in history”) to take on the role of Amanda in the original production of The Glass Menagerie. She was, he says, “constantly ad-libbing in an accent I’ve yet to identify.” Yet, in the end, of course, she gave a performance that has become the stuff of legends.
He regrets the lack of public and critical appreciation for his later plays, which were sometimes experimental in nature and served to move him forward as a writer. Interestingly enough, some of these are receiving a new hearing (e.g. the current revelatory production of The Two Character Play, starring Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif).
But, in the end, nothing matters to him so much as the writing. Through all of the ups and downs of his life, the struggles with failure and with success—and with the booze, the barbiturates, and the boys—it is the writing that kept him going.
“If I could not write, I’d cease to exist,” he says, leaving his posthumous appearance before us as evidence of the truth of this statement.
En Avant! (the phrase, meaning “onward,” was Mr. Williams’s motto) makes for a most companionable and intimate theatrical evening at its Fringe venue, the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center in the Lower East Side. I’m guessing that, like his subject, Mr. Shuman will continue to tinker with both the work and his performance of it over time, but hopefully he will keep the tone conversational and relaxed as it is now.