Watching Tennessee Williams' "Night of the Iguana," I kept wondering if Ted Mann, who directed it and who runs Circle in the Square, which recently presented a lame "Streetcar," wants to do to Williams what Joe Papp is doing to Shakespeare: present his plays so flatly you'd never know the author was a poet.
This makes sense. Poetry nowadays is hardly a draw. The magic of these writers, however, is that if they're done well, the customers are moved in spite of their natural distrust of the poetic.
Only 10 years ago Circle did a beautiful production of "Iguana," which is set in 1940 in a remote corner of Mexico. The world is at war, and an assortment of broken, poignant people arrive at what is indeed a "last resort" to pick up the pieces of their lives.
Here everything - except Zack Brown's striking set - is so unpoetic you feel the play is a raucous comedy. Williams was never this pitiless.
Jane Alexander, who plays a slattern hotelkeeper, is not a woman for whom coarseness come naturally. This is a disadvantage for actresses these days, and though she works hard to show she can be vulgar, it seems effortful.
Maria Tucci, as an old maid who supports herself and her grandfather selling watercolors, has vocal patterns she resorts to when she doesn't have strong direction. They are plaintive and eloquent, but monotonous. Nicolas Surovy, as a renegade priest turned tour guide, conveys anguish in a gruff voice that makes his every utterance grating. Pamela Payton-Wright is funny if overstated as his most difficult tourist.
Presumably it is simply a coincidence that America's two indisputable playwrights - O'Neill and Williams - were both men pursued by demons, writing out of pain, and revising out of misery.
"The Night of the Iguana," by Tennessee Williams - the last of that playwright's critical and public successes - is a play that looks at religion and life, sex and sensuality, and the compromises of survival through a mist of pained compassion.
Compassion is the quality that instantly separates Williams from O'Neill, for while O'Neill suffered corrosively for himself, Williams suffered noisily for the world. And Williams forgave, while O'Neill simply remembered.
This season we have the Yale Repertory Theater's centennial production of O'Neill's "family" plays on Broadway, while Circle-in-the-Square is staging a Williams retrospective which started with a revisionist "Streetcar," has proceeded with "The Night of the Iguana," opening last night, and will conclude with a third Williams play yet to be named.
"Iguana," first produced in 1961 with Patrick O'Neill, Margaret Leighton, and Bette Davis, has never enjoyed the general acclaim of "Streetcar," "Menagerie," or even "Cat," but in its day it had a decent, if backstage-troubled, Broadway run, and, in the final love-fest with his critics, won Williams his last New York Drama Critics' Best Play Award.
Made into a modestly successful movie by John Huston, even with Richard Burton delivering a desultory performance as Shannon, the defrocked priest hero, its only major theatrical revival was also by the Circle-in-the-Square, in 1976, this time round starring Richard Chamberlain as the agonized Shannon.
It is a great play - destined eventually, perhaps not right now, to find a high place in the Williams canon. Of all the major Williams plays, it is the one - with the exception of "Milk Train," the Williams work with which it has most in common - that is thematically the least clear and most dense.
For one thing it seems to be about sex, and sexual repression, when it is really about salvation, poetry, and God. And getting through the night and the night after.
Shannon, described so wonderfully by Williams as a "man of God - on vacation," unquestionably has his sexual problems, stemming from a mixture of attractiveness and instability, but these are symptomatic of his inability to center his life or secure it some kind of purpose.
In comparison the people Williams places around Shannon - Maxine, the sensual, newly widowed owner of the cheap Mexican hotel where it all takes place; Hannah Jelkes, the New England spinster, for whom Shannon has an emotional surge of energy; and Nonno, Hannah's old and dying minor poet of a grandfather - all know vaguely what they want and instinctively what they need.
Only Shannon is undetermined, rootless, deserted by the God he has himself deserted, unfitted for the only life he can find, unable to reshape himself in terms of character or circumstance. A man, not unlike Tennessee Williams himself, quite perfectly doomed.
For, again like O'Neill, Williams only had one subject: himself and his life. And both playwrights busied themselves writing about the way these were, or should, or could, have been.
In "The Night of the Iguana" it is the iguana, a lizard, one of God's creatures, captured for death and struggling in the dark for blind survival, who is the ultimate hero.
At the end the iguana is released, the old poet dies - with the final ecstasy of having composed what he feels to be his finest poem - and his granddaughter and, of course, the world-smart widow, settle down to survival.
But Shannon, who has released the iguana, is himself tethered, settling for a future once more not of his making.
This new production, staged by Theodore Mann, has a lot going for it, including a setting by Zack Brown of considerable beauty and with the realism of a film set, and at least one beautifully judged performance.
Yet in the final count it lacks something in urgency and anxiety - partly because of the conventionally distraught but essentially bland portrayal given by Nicolas Surovy as Shannon.
Surovy is far from inadequate, and in his big scene with Hannah (given by Maria Tucci with a consummate mixture of chicanery, spirituality, and prissiness - for this is another view of Williams himself) he does indeed rise to the dusty occasion.
Yet he never dominates the play with his indecision or colors it with his pain. Also Jane Alexander, charmingly earthy, does not make the most of the widow Maxine, and at the end you feel she might even try to reform Shannon rather than take him to the final corruption.
This is still a play in search of its ultimate definition - a definition that cannot come, oddly enough, until a great and perhaps bizarre actor (it would be a wonderful role for a man like Jonathan Pryce) shows us how the play can really work.
Meanwhile this is a production worth your attention, partly for Williams' writing, which here is both spare and luxuriant all at once, exaggerated yet direct, also to a degree the performances, especially Miss Tucci's tenderly judged and exquisite Hannah, and finally to Brown's expansive setting.
Not a complete success, the production demonstrates that "The Night of the Iguana" still deserves another day in court.
On a dilapidated veranda of a summer hotel in Mexico, the characters in ''The Night of the Iguana'' act out Tennessee Williams's passion play. The defrocked minister, Shannon; the New England spinster, Hannah Jelkes, who has been shepherding her ancient grandfather around the world, and Maxine Faulk, the rapacious owner of the hotel - each is fighting for, in Hannah's word, ''endurance,'' in a world that drives them to desperation.
In contrast to ''A Streetcar Named Desire,'' the play that directly preceded it on the stage at Circle in the Square, ''The Night of the Iguana'' is problematic Williams. It is a play with archetypal Williams characters and a durable theme, but it carries a heavy burden of symbolism, beginning with the title. Like the iguana, each of the principals is ''one of God's creatures at the end of the rope.''
A production of the play is less shadowed by previous performances - always true in the case of ''Streetcar'' - than by the work itself. Repeatedly, the people characterize one another. Despite his continuing derelictions, Shannon is intended to be a figure of great sexual magnetism. Similarly, Maxine is, she is told, ''bigger than life and twice as unnatural.''
In Theodore Mann's revival, which opened last night, Nicolas Surovy is Shannon on a small scale rather than as a burnt-out man who is tormented by his demons. His attempts to elude the grasp of both Maxine and the teen-ager he has seduced are not the moves of ''a man of God on vacation,'' mightily trying to avoid temptation.
Jane Alexander, an actress of impressive talent, is life-size and natural as Maxine. But in this case, naturalism is not enough. The role, as we realize, is relatively small; performance is more a matter of presence than of dialogue. In several scenes, in fact, Maxine lounges in the rear of the veranda and silently watches the other characters tug at their emotional tethers. The actress conveys Maxine's resilience - she is clearly one of the play's several survivors - but, as directed by Mr. Mann, the supposedly lustful scenes between Ms. Alexander and Mr. Surovy lack both passion and spontaneity.
As she did in a different - but also wavering - production of the play last summer at the Williamstown (Mass.) Theater Festival, Maria Tucci captures the full dimensions of Hannah, her saintliness as well as her immense practicality. This is a woman who is undiscouraged by a mountain of adversity, ready and able to push a wheelchair uphill. She has a vibrant sense of idealism and human value.
As was true of a number of Williams's works, ''The Night of the Iguana'' began its life as a short story, one that centered around Hannah Jelkes, a lonely spinster staying in the Costa Verde Hotel. The other characters joined her when the story grew into a play. At Circle in the Square, as at Williamstown, the drama places a renewed emphasis on Hannah, largely because of Ms. Tucci's performance.
The character, as we see her, is a variation of Blanche DuBois, a tiger moth who has learned to withstand the scorching flame. Ms. Tucci, without missing a nuance, avoids the pitfall of sentimentality, one into which some of her predecessors in the role have fallen.
Mr. Surovy's scenes with Ms. Tucci are short on sensitivity; we never accept that they and their secret ''spooks'' and ''devils'' have a deep relationship. At the same time, William LeMassena plays Nonno not as a figure of fragile indomitability but as a loudly assertive old codger. When he finally completes his long poem in progress, one does not sense the crushing weight of a century on his shoulders.
Unsteadily guided by Mr. Mann, the production seems, alternately, languorous and heavyhanded. Pamela Payton-Wright, as the dominatrix in charge of the all-woman bus tour Shannon is leading, looks like a peppy cowgirl and stresses the comic side of her character. In common with Mr. Surovy, she wins laughs, but at some expense of her character. Marita Geraghty is shrill as the teen-ager. One is not convinced of the sexual possessiveness that Ms. Payton-Wright presumably feels toward the young woman.
It is generally acknowledged that it was an artistic intrusion for Williams to house a group of rabidly pro-Nazi German tourists at the hotel to bring us news of the encroaching war (the year is 1940). An astute production plays down these vulgarians. In this revival, however, the Germans are so caricatured that whenever they march on stage, they seem like an invading horde of Toons.
Zack Brown's setting in the severely restrictive stage space at Circle in the Square gives an atmospheric foundation to the play. The Costa Verde is in place, with all its out of season seediness, ready to welcome its disparate, lonely characters, but, with the definite exception of Ms. Tucci, the theatrical hotel is not amply inhabited.