Almeida Theatre. Directed by Howard Davies
A two-level set, consisting of a living-room-cum-kitchen on the main floor and a bedroom and bathroom at the top of a curving staircase — somewhere in the South. Williams may have specified where, in the deep South, the play transpires, but the Almeida program is silent on these details (as are so many programs these days). I didn’t know this play before tonight; it opened in New York in 1960 and speaks of the 1950’s and that hopeful and secretly nervous and troubled — and not so secretly conformist — age. The age in which I came to adulthood; I was twenty-one in 1956. The world was full of promise, but it was not my oyster; somebody else’s oyster, in fact, and I was envious of the people my age who looked like possessors of oysters and a knife to open them with.
This reminiscence is to the point, I’d say, because Williams is writing a comedy about adjustment to the realities of the young adult world, and it’s a hard thing, but at the same time a funny thing too. To his credit, Williams captures the shaky, still unformed identities that pass for character to a mostly preoccupied world. Interpersonal relationships, in the circumstances, are uneasy, and commitments are fairly terrifying.
The play turns on the temporary (we think) re-uniting of friends, Ralph Bates and George Haverstick, who actually don’t know each other all that well. George has just married Isabel, a nurse, who gave George alcohol rubs while he was a patient in Barnes Hospital, suffering from chronic tremors for which there was no clear neurological explanation. For his part, Ralph has married money, but the father of his wife, Dorothea, has hung on out of all expectation, leaving Ralph, Dorothea, and their three-year-old living in a not-so-nice, cramped house built over a cavern that is gradually drawing the house down upon itself, tremor by tremor. Cracks in the wall and ceiling will be ever more extended as the action unfolds.
The symbolism of tremors in the play signals that it is, for all its comedy, an authentic Tennessee Williams play about the presence of literal or metaphorical, human or natural-world vibrations that are the tell-tale signs of permanent maladjustment — Williams’s perennial subject, after all. There is plenty of genuine humor in the play, and Williams’s canny sense of good staging and dramatic effect serves him well. The “adjustment” that goes on is a double one, that is, involving two pairs of characters, with quite different problems, so far as the details of their relationships are concerned, but with a big single problem, so far as the anxieties of male sexuality are concerned. Williams doesn’t need to probe very deep to expose performance anxiety beneath the bravado that commonly attempts to cover it over. And there are scenes in which Ralph and George step out of their socially-induced roles as good ol’ boys and sparring partners for long enough to admit that they are troubled and vulnerable guys in need of a more temperate connection with a woman who will not humiliate them or expect too much of them.
At one point, Isabel, who realizes she hardly knows the man she has married, calls Ralph and George “two little boys.” If you have space to think about it, as the action of the play progresses, you remember once again, from your experience of other Williams plays and perhaps additional plays such as Hellmann’s The Little Foxes, how fraught with mutual difficulty the relationships of men and women have been in Southern society: the impossible expectations placed on women in a genteel faux- or post-aristocratic society based so extensively on men’s need for place and privilege, and a reflexive response of women rendered helpless on their pedestal in turning their men into boys wherever they can. Hateful, and mutually destructive.
This is all there, in the negotiations of the two sets of failing marriage partners in this play. Davies has glossed over the harder edges of these transactions and has played them mostly for laughs. For this he can’t really be blamed, and certainly the audience, plentifully populated with Americans, loved what he did with the play. But there is a more serious streak in it that might have gotten more emphasis; without it, the thing comes off as less substantive than it otherwise might have appeared.
It’s a tough challenge, and anyway Davies must have had his hands full trying to get these four actors to do better than simply simulate four British actors trying to “do” deep south American characters. The accents themselves are difficult enough, and there were four different accents, of varying degrees of inauthenticity, to be heard. The best of them was Benedict Cumberbatch’s as George, who had the diphthongs and the rhythms, and the body language to complement them. Jared Harris was too loud and shrill, and had not settled into the body of his character yet in this, the third performance of the run. Isabel, played by Lisa Dillon, had been determinedly coached by the vocal dialect coach, Joan Washington; she was getting most of the mechanics right — “dough-wer” for “door” — and some of the vocal music right, but her lines were still memorized lines, not true utterances from the heart and lungs of a woman terribly torn over how sexual a being her upbringing would allow her to be. Still, it was all much better than the horrible falseness of the accents in a production of The Night of the Iguana I saw some years back at the National, or of the more recent production there of Mourning Becomes Electra — in certain ways much easier to do than Williams, because of the way that the deeply wounded characters of Williams manifest their inverted personages in body language, as well as vocal inflections, that rise from tarnished souls. (Wow, did I say that?)
Well, okay: Williams’s plays are like contained earthquakes. They proceed at the epicenter of seismic activity that shakes and rumbles and shakes and rumbles and finally produces openings in the earth that are impossible to ignore, for the damage they do and the divisions they effect between perfectly well-meaning persons who, unfortunately, are no match for the terrible trouble that they inevitably manage to get into. Period of Adjustment is a comedic treatment of the subject, but it’s the same subject nonetheless. I liked the laughs, but I wanted more registering of the seismic activity on the dramaturgical Richter Scale.