Let’s hand it to Tennessee Williams: he picked some of the best titles for his plays. A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Night of the Iguana, Small Craft Warnings, Clothes for a Summer Hotel. The very last of his plays, In Masks Outrageous and Austere—it had never been produced prior to this recent Culture Project production, which just closed early due to mixed-to-negative reviews—is no exception; the title comes from a line in an Elinor Wylie poem, and it has both the rhythm Williams generally wanted and the sense, the peacock feathers and the steel. Williams worked on it for fives years, from 1978 to his death in 1983, when it passed into the hands of his friend Gavin Lambert, where it languished until Lambert’s death. Several people, notably Gore Vidal and Peter Bogdanovich, worked to get the play ready for production, and this vital premiere of it at the Culture Project was imaginatively directed by David Schweizer and acted to within an inch of its life by its star, Shirley Knight, for whom Williams wrote A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur.
Knight played Clarissa “Babe” Foxworth, one of the richest women in the world. Lost in a push-and-pull daze between alcohol and Ritalin, Babe has been abducted by a group of sharply dressed men known only as the Gideons (as in the Bible), but she seems more concerned with her younger husband Billy (Robert Beitzel) and his younger lover Jerry (Sam Underwood). Babe is obviously kin to Flora Goforth in Williams’s play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, in her riches, in her drug addiction, and in her temper, and she must also stand in for the playwright himself at the time he was writing this play, at sea in his own drug dependency and surrounded by hustlers of one sort or another. Billy says that Babe is a sacred monster, but there’s nothing all that sacred about her except when she details, in the play’s strongest speeches, her unrepentant and unappeasable desire for sex and sensuality, a theme also expressed in nightmarish form by the mute character of Playboy (Connor Buckley), who lets lighthouse keepers gangbang him for gum drops.
The extravagantly mannered Knight swaggered around the stage like the old-time Method actress she is. Her Babe snorted, stumbled, growled, demanded, shot off a gun when necessary, angrily flashed her eyes at her subordinates and peered imperiously through a lorgnette after she petulantly broke her own glasses. All of these furious attitudes had a ghastly kind of intensity that held the attention, but they only pointed up the fact that Babe is a self-absorbed whirlwind of selfishness without even an ounce of genuine curiosity about the people surrounding her. If we had felt that Babe had some of the talent and sensitivity of Williams, it would have been easier to endure her constant tantrums, but she is presented as just a vastly rich woman of no particular distinction. The heart and true poetry of Williams at his best were missing here, replaced by drugged self-congratulation, well-turned phrases and paranoia.