In what appears to be an ongoing offensive against Tennessee Williams, the Roundabout opened a second front last night with its production of "Summer and Smoke."
Hostilities began last winter, you may recall, with their assault on "Night of the Iguana," in which only Cherry Jones was left standing, sort of. Enlisting the services of director David Warren, employing scorched-earth techniques, Roundabout has successfully obliterated the admittedly weaker "Summer and Smoke."
The play starring Mary McDonnell, Harry Hamlin and Roberta Maxwell is set before World War I. The story is quite simple. Alma Winemiller, a minister's daughter, is the embodiment of Victorian repression and gentility. She longs, however, for the handsome boy next door, a doctor with resolutely post-Victorian attitudes toward love and sex. Her background and her delicate disposition make it impossible for her yearning ever to be fulfilled. Alma's frustrated idealism is transformed into a generalized hunger for men. When we last see her, Alma, who is often at pains to remind people her name means Soul, picks up a traveling salesman next to a fountain with a statue of an angel labeled Eternity. For such symbolism not to be embarrassing, the actors must exude poetry. In this production, they range from prosaic to grossly comic. Because many of the actors have done fine work elsewhere, I can only place the blame on the director, whose specialty is stylized comedy. He has directed "Summer and Smoke" as if it were one. The only charitable way to approach this mess is to suppose that Warren, who teaches at Brooklyn College, is "deconstructing" the play. That, at least, would explain why everything thwarts the playwright's intentions. Alma's father, for example, is an Episcopalian minister, which has upper-class connotations. Warren has Ken Jenkins play him as if he were a folksy Baptist. Alma's mother has lost her mind, which ought to be a poignant suggestion of Alma's own possible fate.
Warren has Roberta Maxwell play her as a shrieking fool. Had I not seen Mary McDonnell in "Passion Fish," I would question whether she had any talent. She conveys none of the pain of Alma, none of her fragility, none of her soul. Much of the time she wears a supercilious grin and is so mannered you feel no sympathy for her. Nor does her voice suggest delicacy it is hard and unmusical. Harry Hamlin plays the difficult role of the doctor without any nuance. A camera might pick up something going on beneath his largely impassive features. But I couldn't. The best performance of the evening is Nathalie Paulding, who plays Alma as a 10-year-old and captures more of her nature in 10 minutes than McDonnell in the succeeding 160. Even the set, which follows Williams' instructions, lacks poetry. The angel, which ought to dominate the play, is, like the production, featureless and graceless.
Fles and the spirit - battling counterparts not exactly unfamiliar in the works of Tennessee Williams - resumed their conflict at the Roundabout Theater last night with its new and modestly persuasive production of "Summer and Smoke."
This early Williams play - it dates from 1948, a year after "A Streetcar Named Desire" and three years after "The Glass Menagerie" - is little more than a slight and clumsy variation on themes taken from these earlier successes.
Alma (her name, we note, is Spanish for "soul," and, if we haven't noted it, the playwright goes to pains to point it out) is a near-repressed near-spinster, a minister's daughter who has had, since childhood, a neurotic obsession with the boy next door, John Buchanan Jr., the son of the local doctor, who eventually follows in his father's footsteps.
The play is set in the southern town of Glorious Hill in the 16 years before World War I. Apart from the occasionally impenetrable accents, there is little particularly Southern about the setting - not a solitary black in the whole town - although the magnolia-frail Alma is herself a typical example of Williams' essential view of fragile but sensitive womanhood below the Mason-Dixon line.
Alma and John are, in part, reworkings of Blanche and Stanley in "Streetcar" - Alma being Blancher in her early days (and later nights), while John, the object of her ambiguous desire, suggests a cross between the coarse Stanley and more compassionate Gentleman Caller of "Glass Menagerie."
It is a minor Williams play and the playwright was never satisfied with it. In fact, in 1965 he produced a total reworking of the script, "The Eccentricites of a Nightingale," which was effectively a new play. The latter version, first produced on Broadway in 1976, is, to my mind, far subtler and markedly superior to "Summer and Smoke," which might now usefully be considered a first draft.
The tragedy of "Summer and Smoke," as the British director Peter Hall once pointed out, "lies in two people missing understanding of one another by a hair's breadth."
For while John - in his own father's words "a waster, a drunkard, a lecher" - supports the needs of the flesh and brain, Alma is drawn to the spirit, and when their roles effectively reverse, it is all too late for them to reach the compromise they needed.
The play is full of obvious symbols (even a stone angel to dominate the scene), and some of the writing now seems too florid. No wonder Williams rewrote it, taking particular care with a freshly envisaged hero.
The Roundabout revival, staged fluidly by David Warren with exceptionally and attractively adaptable settings by Derek McLane, is dominated, as it should be, by Mary McDonnell's Alma.
This is a lovely, febrile performance, choking with lost hopes, yet still radiant with Williams' life force. McDonnell could, however, go a little easier on her body language, which, abetted by the director, seems a dialect of silent melodrama.
Harry Hamlin appears bluff and brutal enough, but fails to convince in his conversion to respectability - but the playwright is here admittedly less than helpful.
Among the other roles, Roberta Maxwell proves outstanding as Alma's dotty but not entirely unperceptive mother who provides the play's object lesson as to Alma's own possible future.
When McDonnell realizes that less could be more, her performance itself will make a Roundabout visit beautifully memorable. But it might have been altogether a better idea to have framed McDonnell in a revived "Eccentricities." Sometimes a playwright's second thoughts are best.
''The pieces don't fit!'' exclaims the crazy, exasperated Mrs. Winemiller, the preacher's wife in Tennessee Williams's ''Summer and Smoke.'' She's talking about a jigsaw puzzle or, if you're thinking symbols (and you don't have much choice but to think that way when it comes to ''Summer and Smoke''), about the eternal rift between body and soul.
But if you're in the audience of the new revival of the play at the Roundabout Theater, you may also be excused for thinking that dotty old Mrs. Winemiller has suddenly turned theater critic. The pieces most definitely do not fit in this shrill, oddly boisterous interpretation of a work that, like so many of Williams's emotionally crippled characters, begs only to be treated gently.
This may seem a bizarre objection about a production of a play that, with its neatly structured pairing of its idealistic heroine and animalistic hero in small-town turn-of-the-century Mississippi, has always been accused of being too schematic.
But under the direction of David Warren, ''Summer and Smoke'' does indeed unfold as an awkward clash of elements that goes way beyond its central paradox. A musical sense of tempo is crucial to playing anything by Williams; here, nearly everyone seems to be following a different orchestral baton.
Consider, for example, the actual music meant to set the mood for the production. John Gromada's lovely piano-based score is plaintive, understated and elegiac, conforming to the traditional reading of the play as a sort of tone poem. The acting, on the other hand, is most often either manic and overwrought or flat and mechanical. Humorous passages stand out like one-liners, and lines that should probably be murmured are screamed.
Add to this the fact that the star performances -- by Mary McDonnell as Alma Winemiller, a repressed, genteel spinster, and Harry Hamlin as John Buchanan Jr., the hedonistic doctor she loves -- are often in direct contradiction of Williams's own descriptions of them. And while their characters may be polar opposites, these actors only seldom suggest the hope of connection that gives the play its pathos.
Even Derek McLane's set is self-defeating, with its ethereal background of cloud-flecked blue sky undermined by clunky, outsize images of the spirit and the flesh (an image of the Virgin Mary is on one side of the stage, an immense anatomy chart on the other).
''Summer and Smoke'' has never been all that easy to make fly. It was widely dismissed when it opened on Broadway in 1948, on the heels of the spectacular success of ''A Streetcar Named Desire.'' (Howard Barnes, writing in The New York Herald Tribune, described it as ''a pretentious and amateurish bore.'') It wasn't until the legendary Circle in the Square revival in 1952, with the brilliant young Geraldine Page as Alma Winemiller, that the work was considered a worthy addition to the Williams canon.
By the time Page recorded her performance for film in 1961, it had started to feel a bit tired (the whole character seems built around her collarbone, over which her restless fingers rove). But it still provides firm evidence of why Williams so loved the vulnerable, gallant and touchingly affected Miss Alma. (He always said she was the character closest to himself; like him, he told Playboy magazine, she was a late bloomer sexually.)
Indeed, his descriptions of her in the play's text exude a courtly sense of protectiveness: ''In Alma's voice and manner there is a delicacy and elegance,'' he writes, adding: ''Her gestures and mannerisms are a bit exaggerated but in a graceful way. . . . the characterization must never be stressed to the point of making her at all ludicrous.''
Would that Ms. McDonnell had followed these instructions more closely. She can be a smart, intuitive performer and is remarkable in her ability to register shades of emotion in her smile. She uses it to project the brittle social armor of a Hillary Rodham Clinton-like First Lady in the hit movie ''Independence Day.'' And here it becomes the affectingly apologetic screen for both Alma's innate shyness and eagerness to be loved.
But Ms. McDonnell doesn't stop short of exaggeration, either. Miss Alma's laughter here has the whooping, uncontained quality of someone who's just been goosed, and her hand gestures are so busy and expansive she might be rehearsing the macarena.
The character's glacial, repressive dignity and genuine if self-deluding piety don't seem to exist. This Alma is already in an advanced state of thaw, wearing her flustered sensuality close to the surface. The affectations seem less organic than poses recently assumed as a means of attracting her man. (On film, Katharine Hepburn used the same desperate eagerness, to more appropriate effect, as the social-climbing heroine of ''Alice Adams.'')
As a consequence, Ms. McDonnell's performance verges dangerously on the old and inelegant comic type of the man-trap-setting spinster. She can be very funny indeed, but often, alas, at her character's expense.
This is especially unfortunate because this actress has obviously invested a lot of emotional energy in the role, and there are moments when Alma's pain pierces through the production like a surgeon's knife. More misguided than miscast, Ms. McDonnell, in her florid intensity, remains the only thing onstage that commands the attention.
It should also be pointed out that she is acting for two here. The handsome, strapping Mr. Hamlin, best known for the television series ''L.A. Law,'' certainly has the looks for the more limited role of the lusty, cynical doctor. But he is astonishingly short on the pulsing (and necessary) physical presence Laurence Harvey gave to the film. He often seems simply to be feeding Ms. McDonnell her cues, like the unseen voice in a screen test.
It's hard to figure out exactly what the talented Mr. Warren, who has brought spark and wit to plays as different as Nicky Silver's ''Pterodactyls'' and Philip Barry's ''Holiday,'' had in mind. He may have been aiming for the sort of exaggerated comic deconstruction used so effectively in the recent production of Williams's ''Kingdom of Earth'' by the Drama Dept., a new troupe to which Mr. Warren belongs. But like Alma herself, ''Summer and Smoke'' is too fragile to be handled brusquely.
Most of the supporting cast, which includes such pros as Roberta Maxwell as Alma's mother, seldom reach beyond two dimensions. Strangely, the performance that comes closest to capturing the wry, heartfelt wistfulness of the play is given by a very young actress named Nathalie Paulding.
Ms. Paulding plays Alma as a little girl in a prologue that always seemed ungainly and expendable. (Williams wisely dropped it when he rewrote ''Summer and Smoke'' under the title ''Eccentricities of a Nightingale.'') Here, however, Alma's childhood self has a breathlessly naive, earnest idealism that seems an ideal prelude for the heartbreak to come. For more reasons than one, you're sorry she has to grow up.
The early scenes of the Roundabout Theater Company's revival of Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke" instill about as much confidence as the nervous cat in the title of that other Williams play. The set seems to be on loan from other recent productions (suspended angel fountain from "Angels in America," doll houses courtesy of "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and "Carousel"), the child actors are even stagier than usual, and the leading man projects little of the rakish charm demanded by his role.
But as Mary McDonnell glides into her role as one of the playwright's wilted magnolias, any initial flaws in David Warren's production fade as surely as any of Williams' Southern belles. As Alma Winemiller, the sexually repressed spinster hopelessly in love with the hedonistic son of the town doctor, McDonnell rises above her own good looks (she's hardly the plain Geraldine Page type usually associated with the role) to offer a convincing portrait of loneliness, need and (unlike the character's "Streetcar" counterpart) survival, however compromised. Her performance gives the Roundabout production its center, even while the play calls for a more balanced dance between the spinster and young John Buchanan Jr. (Harry Hamlin).
"Summer and Smoke," although too schematic to rank as one of Williams' masterpieces, nonetheless offers enough of the playwright's poetry to merit this first major New York production in 40 years. Warren has staged the melancholy tale on an open, airy set dominated by two large glass-like panes suspended over either side of the stage one bearing an anatomy chart to represent the doctor's office, the other a steepled rectory that's home to Alma, her minister father and snipishly batty mother. That dichotomy the physical vs. the spiritual is the theme of the play and the basis for its characterization. It should be a fairly evenhanded battle, but this production is so dominated by McDonnell's superior performance that the production spins off-kilter. For starters, Hamlin, his handsome face showing some age, is too old for the role. His John, a medical student given to sensual pleasure, seems less youthful rogue than dissipated cynic.
He simply doesn't convince that he's on summer vacation from med school, and the stiff, brooding performance never meshes or sparks with McDonnell's more nuanced turn. The play opens at the turn of the century, with Alma and John as children (a scene rendered all but incomprehensible by the forced Southern accents of the production's two child actors). The prissy Alma's schoolgirl crush on the headstrong John carries over to adulthood, as the action picks up 16 years later when John returns home for a summer in Glorius Hill, Miss. The two resume their odd, opposites-attract acquaintance, each giving voice to the other's barely submerged desires: He represents her repressed sexual desire, she his longing for something more spiritual, or at least emotional. Their encounters, of course, are ill-fated. Alma invites John to a poetry reading, at which even she's embarrassed by the pathetic lonely-hearts in attendance. He, in turn, takes her to Moon Lake Casino, where cock-fighting and an air of casual debauchery all but crush Alma's faith in John's potential.
The play's turning point occurs when John's decadent life brings tragedy upon his father, prompting the transformation (not entirely convincing) that brings John around to Alma's way of thinking. But Alma, after something akin to a nervous breakdown, awakens to the desire she's long suppressed, just in time to learn that her beloved John has chosen another woman. "Summer and Smoke" ends on a bittersweet note, with Alma taking a tentative step toward connection and finding herself relying, as it were, on the kindness of strangers. Although the acting is rooted in Williams' lyric naturalism, the production has a vaguely impressionistic feeling. Staying fairly close to the playwright's own stage instructions, bits and pieces of furniture establish place, while at times the entire performance space is awash in sky-blue lights and cloud projections, a pretty display that, like the production itself, adds nothing new or essential to the play.
Unlike Gregory Mosher's recent Broadway production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," which for better or worse dared toy with the conventional portrayal of Stanley, the current "Summer" takes no such risks. This despite the text's Mexican stereotypes that beg to be re-imagined. With a few exceptions, the supporting cast is solid, with Celia Weston (as a busybody neighbor) and Todd Weeks (in several roles) the standouts. But this "Summer and Smoke" is McDonnell's show, and if the production doesn't rise to her standard, it certainly benefits greatly.