Tennessee Williams' 1961 drama, "The Night of the Iguana," probably represents the last time that the playwright's penchant for pure hooey didn't overtake his awesome aptitude for poetry.
Though the play veers between spelled-out emotions ("People need human contact, Maxine") and heavy-handed metaphors (a trapped iguana, a crucifixion on a hammock), its sheer audacity makes them work, as it floridly focuses on a carnival of souls at the end of their tether.
Inspired by Williams' 1940 vacation in Mexico, "Iguana" has defrocked, crocked minister-turned-tour-guide Shannon (William Petersen) landing at a run-down Mexican hotel owned by an unapologetic force of nature named Maxine Faulk (Marsha Mason).
There, he's chased by an obsessive underage girl (Paula Cale) and redeemed by the perceptive Hannah Jelkes (Cherry Jones), a flat-broke spinster parading around her stroke-ridden, poetry-spouting grandfather (Lawrence McCauley).
As a storm rages, so do high-falutin contentions and confrontations. Shannon flirts with another breakdown as the plaintive Hannah urges him to believe in something, and - brace yourself - the iguana is set free.
Williams' tropical drama is so borderline over-the-top that it comes off best when handled with a little delicacy. This mostly solid production, directed by Robert Falls, builds as the play does, getting stronger as the histrionics die down and the actors connect.
William Petersen - making his New York theatrical debut - is too prone to ranting, but has potent moments as the minister on a bender. Marsha Mason is almost earthy enough as Maxine, and Lawrence McCauley makes a touchingly out-of-it old man.
But it's Cherry Jones - last year's Tony-winner for "The Heiress" - who creates the most indelible impressions. Having done this part in Chicago, Jones clearly knows how to underplay what might otherwise veer on fortune-cookie wisdoms. In measured tones that may at first seem off-putting, she exerts a quiet dignity that becomes magnetic.
Loy Arcenas' set vividly fills the stage, though it could be even more dilapidated. James F. Ingall's lighting enhances the mood immeasurably as Jones and Petersen commune by moonlight.
Of Tennessee Williams's great plays, "The Night of the Iguana" (1961) may be the most difficult to realize on the stage today, being the most easily misinterpreted with the help of hindsight. That's being demonstrated in the Roundabout Theater Company's handsome, wildly uneven revival, which, under the direction of Robert Falls, is risky to the point of wrongheadedness. The production opened last night at the Criterion Center Stage Right with a cast headed by William Petersen, Marsha Mason and, in her first Broadway appearance since "The Heiress," the stunning Cherry Jones.
It may be that "The Night of the Iguana" invites misinterpretation. Standing at the center of the play, his shaky hands outstretched as if pleading for benediction, is the most complex male character Williams ever wrote. He's the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon, an Episcopal clergyman who, having been locked out of his church for "fornication and heresy," has been reduced to shepherding cut-rate bus tours through Mexico.
Shannon is a fugitive from his heritage (he's the grandson of two bishops), his church and his God, whom he calls "his oblivious majesty." He's also pursued by "spooks," which could represent desires so repressed that most of the time he doesn't have to recognize them.
At the beginning of "The Night of the Iguana," set in 1940, Shannon finds himself stranded, effectively washed up, on Mexico's Pacific coast at the small, raffish Costa Verde Hotel. He's being pursued by his spooks, by a busload of furious female tourists from Texas, and by the threat of a statutory rape charge involving one of his clients.
He's in desperate need of the refuge that is offered first by his old friend Maxine, the lusty American owner of the hotel, and then by Hannah Jelkes, a self-described spinster from Nantucket. Hannah travels the world with her 97-year-old grandfather, Jonathan Coffin, always called Nonno, "the world's oldest living and practicing poet." Hannah and Nonno are genteel con artists, moving from one hotel to the next as she picks up money doing sketches of the guests and he recites from his oeuvre. During one tumultuous afternoon and night, Maxine fights for Shannon's body, Hannah for his soul and Shannon for his redemption.
In the way of alcoholics who are still young, good looking and have the gift of gab, Shannon solicits the attentions of others whom he then rebuffs, often violently, for what he says is their own good. Shannon may be Williams's most autobiographical character, at least in a spiritual sense. Yet he's only Williams as the playwright romantically read himself. Shannon is a fiction, a mysterious, inspired amalgam of Williams's memory, insight, fear, bravado and imagination. The character has a rich, terrifying life of his own. He also has hidden reserves of moral courage that even he isn't aware of.
This isn't always apparent in the performance being given by Mr. Petersen in this revival. He's a strong, consistent actor with the kind of boyish appearance that will last well into middle age. He looks right for the role. Yet his Shannon moves and talks in a way that suggests the cliched mannerisms of an insecurely closeted homosexual. There's a camp edge to many of his readings. His use of a handkerchief sometimes evokes the victimized Blanche Du Bois, not a man who, when cornered, will face his demons with his own crazy gallantry and courage.
Mr. Falls, who staged last season's fine revival of Williams's "Rose Tattoo," and Mr. Petersen have drastically rethought the play, which, with Ms. Jones, they first presented at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in 1994. You won't recognize Shannon if you have read the text or remember Patrick O'Neal's performance in the original Broadway production or Richard Burton's in the 1964 film.
In heavily italicized ways, Mr. Falls and Mr. Petersen make Shannon's sexually ambiguous nature more explicit, as if they had found the key to the character in the playwright's own homosexuality. Yet Williams's characters, like his soaring metaphors, do not need explication of this obvious sort, especially when it robs the play of the weight of its pivotal figure. With Mr. Petersen playing only the subtext, there's a large emptiness at the heart of this production.
Ms. Jones is very fine as Hannah, a woman whose exterior serenity is in no way at odds with her battles to master her own phantoms. Hannah is Williams's brilliant variation on those simultaneously pragmatic and unworldly nuns so beloved in third-rate literature and movies. Hannah is rock hard, self-aware and sorrowful. Though Ms. Jones defers to Mr. Petersen throughout, she dominates the production in such a way that it picks up speed when she comes onto the stage and almost visibly sags when she departs.
The kindest thing to say about Ms. Mason is that she's miscast as the robust, tough-talking Maxine. Being light of weight as a theater presence, she has to push hard to suggest an edgy, hard-drinking, unsentimental earth mother, someone with a fondness for beach boys, two at a time. She's not bad, but you are allowed to expect more from a Broadway production than a performance that might be more acceptable in a summer stock outing.
The principal supporting performances are those of Lawrence McCauley as Nonno, Paula Cale as the nymphet Texas tourist who seduces Shannon, and Mary Beth Fisher as the shrewish chaperone of the Texas travelers. Adequate is the operative word for all. The production, which includes a fine tropical thunderstorm, is suitably atmospheric, in large part because of the set design by Loy Arcenas and lighting by James F. Ingalls.
"The Night of the Iguana" reminds us of the dazzling gifts Williams possessed before he went on to outlive his ability to control them. Yet in this production, we have a passion play from which the central passion has been removed.
Having staged "The Rose Tattoo" at Circle in the Square last season, director Robert Falls returns with "The Night of the Iguana" at the Roundabout; the two are major-league productions of somewhat less-than-major-league Tennessee Williams. Falls gets mixed results from his cast, most of whom appeared in this production's premiere two years ago at his home base, Chicago's Goodman Theater. Nevertheless, the production makes a persuasive case for the play.
Of the two works, the 1961 "Iguana" is inarguably the more rewarding as dramatic literature and comes closest in stature to Williams' earlier masterpieces. But like many of the later works, it also features a certain crude rawness that seems to exist for little more than shock value, from the family of Germans shouting "Seig heil!" as they celebrate the bombing of London (the year is 1940), to the image of humanity literally feeding off a mound of excrement. Still, grounding both play and production is the incandescent Cherry Jones as the penniless Nantucket sketch artist Hannah Jelkes, who comes upon a run-down hotel in a rain forest on the west coast of Mexico and the pair of hungry hearts abiding there. Jones exudes an unshakeable self-possession as a woman who knows exactly what she'sabout when she meets T. Lawrence Shannon (William Petersen), the "unfrocked," unstable reverend with a taste for teenage girls who's been reduced to leading tour-bus groups through these humid precincts, and the blowzy widow Maxine Faulk (Marsha Mason), who's gone ants-in-her-pants with designs on him.
(Hannah, Shannon and Maxine were played by Margaret Leighton, Patrick O'Neil and Bette Davis, respectively, in the Broadway premiere, and by Deborah Kerr, Richard Burton and Ava Gardner in John Huston's superb 1964 film.)
On Loy Arcenas' exceptionally atmospheric set (replete with an outdoor shower going full-strength at curtain-rise on the mostly naked Alfredo MacDonald, one of the two frisky locals Maxine keeps on hand for, er, odd jobs), Falls plays up the sultriness and the burlesque: Mason enters with shirt undone and shorts unzipped, and will make few sartorial concessions to the busload of rebellious Bible school ladies Shannon has brought her way.
When Shannon lounges on the prominent hammock, Maxine lounges right on top of him, with plenty of grinding in case there's any doubt about her intent, and if she's no Bette Davis, Mason still quite niftily banishes all memory of "Cinderella Liberty."
Then Hannah arrives with her grandfather, Nonno (Lawrence McCauley), the world's oldest practicing poet. They have been turned away from the area's better hotels and are desperate for lodgings they typically barter for, she doing quick sketches at dining room tables, he reciting his work.
Femme and floral atmospherics aside, any production of "Iguana" will turn on Hannah's and Shannon's second-act arias: Shannon furiously resists the salvation Hannah offers; she remains implacably generous in the face of that resistance.
In matters of class and circumstance, Hannah is an altogether different brand of spinster than Catherine Sloper, whom Jones played in last season's "The Heiress." But Jones imbues all of her characters with an exalted stillness of spirit, whatever turbulence surrounds her. And she has the rare gift of generosity that comes of total, unaffected confidence that manages to rivet our attention on her without seeming to take away from everything else unfolding onstage -- one definition, at least, of true star quality.
Petersen can't compete with one of Burton's greatest film performances, and, wisely, he doesn't try. His Shannon is besieged by lesser demons than those that wracked Burton. What the performance lacks in heft Petersen almost makes up for in manic, comic energy.
McCauley is wonderful as the ancient poet, and there are good supporting performances from Mary Beth Fisher as the leader of the church ladies' mutiny, Paula Cale as Shannon's latest conquest and Scott Jaeck as the bus driver.
That fine set is gorgeously lit by James F. Ingalls, and Susan Hilferty's costumes are right on the money, from Shannon's slightly tattered linen suit to Hannah's precious kimono. It's no small testament to Falls & Co. that the evening's three hours pass quickly and movingly.