Rarely do you see a posthumous world premiere from Tennessee Williams.
Even more rarely do you see a remarkable production of such a premiere.
But those happy circumstances swung together in Beau Jest's recent mounting of The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame LeMonde, a twisted, sexually explicit sketch the great playwright penned in his final years. The show took two bows at the Charlestown Working Theater last Friday and Saturday, and will re-appear out in P-Town at the Tennessee Williams Festival this weekend. Hopefully, for those who can't make ferry-fare, CWT or some other local venue will bring this macabre one-act back for an encore.
But a word of warning: LeMonde may not be "appropriate" for many Williams fans (gay and straight), at least not those who are unprepared to have the scales fall from their eyes. For in it, the once-closeted playwright drops a whole lotta aesthetic and emotional baggage with a resounding thud. Right up front, the female "beards" of Blanche and Maggie and Laura and his other crippled heroines have all been shaved away; Williams's avatar in LeMonde is "Mint," a stunted gay man (his tiny legs are paralyzed) who has been reduced to swinging from hook to hook (above left) in the eerie attic of the eponymous rooming house. Needless to say, the hooks in question are meat hooks, and Mint is indeed, a piece of meat to his many visitors, particularly the Brando-esque son of his brutal landlord, who periodically breaks in (an obvious boner pushing at his fly) for a bit of the old in-out with his helpless prey (acts which are staged as shadow-play that's more squirm-inducing than anything I've seen on a Boston stage).
Creepier still, Mint seems to half-long for his own rape - and at any rate, he's not treated much better by his other guest, a sadistic school chum who drops by for tea. Yep, that's right - after the rough trade, it's time for tea and cake in this bourgeois abattoir; sounds like fun, doesn't it. Well, it isn't for Mint, who begs for crumbs as his buddy "Hall," who's a kind of seedy avatar for "the Establishment," scarfs up every single one, all while subjecting Mint to a sewer-stream of dirty stories mixed with contemptuous jibes. Enter the formidable Madame LeMonde - red in tooth and claw, as well as perm and petticoat, who quickly makes damn sure their revels now are ended (she even offs her own son with the swipe of a single paw), then briefly ponders the heartlessness of her domain (not for nothing that symbolic surname!) before settling down to future business. "The world is accident-prone," she mutters grimly, "and the loss of one fool makes room for another." How true.
And how very Absurd. For this frigid, Ionesco-like dénouement caps a vaudeville that constantly echoes that famous Theatre, and it's fascinating to watch Williams find his way into a new aesthetic and set up shop there (indeed, the real shock is how well his familiar tropes, freed from his once-lyric naturalism, fit into the new neighborhood). More intriguing still, here Williams seems both more openly brutal and yet more exquisitely poetic than the rest of his new crowd. The trouble with LeMonde, however, is that it runs a bit long, given that its politics feel borrowed, and it doesn't even have as much plot as your average Beckett or Pinter; Williams sets out his perennial themes in a startling new frame, but doesn't actually advance them an inch.
Jordan Harrison and Larry Coen do high tea in The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame LeMonde.
Still, the play is a valuable addition to the Williams canon, and probably provides a more harrowing window into his tortured soul than any of his other works (barring, that is, whatever other "Grand Guignol"-style pieces he wrote to accompany it). What's more, Beau Jest Moving Theatre and director Davis Robinson have devised a premiere production that gets almost everything right. The always-game Jordan Harrison (who's been equipped with a body puppet, above, to enable all that swinging) makes Mint both pathetic and slightly revolting, and Larry Coen likewise brings a disgustingly haute delicacy to Hall (as in "Music-Hall?"), the public-school twit who torments him over tea. (My only quibble with the resourceful Coen is that perhaps the sadistic lowness of his Hall is made a bit too clear a bit too quickly.) Meanwhile Nick Ronan was just about any sado-masochistic bottom's midsummer night's dream (although shouldn't he be in torn blue jeans, à la Brando and Dean?), and Lisa Tucker dispatched her minions to the great beyond with convincingly cruel panache. Special praise must go to costume designer Rafael Jean, whose costumes were thematically appropriate and, indeed, to die for.
All in all, this was a remarkable night for small theatre in Boston - precisely the kind of evening our academic theatres should be providing, but which they really wouldn't be caught dead doing. Thank God we've got Beau Jest, the Charlestown Working Theater, and the Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival to take us where our would-be teachers fear to tread.