Yesterday at noon hundreds packed into the Abrons Arts Center's theater for one of Performa 11's major new commissions, Three Performances in Search of Tennessee by James Franco and Laurel Nakadate (highlights of which will soon be available online at Paddle8). The three-part performance got off to a slow start but came together thanks to some inspired, disastrous and scantily clad participants.
The performance's first act, "Séance," was a guided meditation session in which the fifteen people onstage—a small circle of four including Franco, Nakadate, the two leaders of the séance, and a larger circle of 11 unseen sitters—and willing members of the audience participated in a short breathing exercise and sought to conjure the spirit of playwright Tennessee Williams. Those onstage seemed to take the exercise very seriously, but the audience's reaction was a mix of earnest engagement and cynical, snickering disbelief. It especially tended to the latter as the leader of the séance relayed Williams' messages to us and most of them were praise for Franco: "This is not about him, it's about you." She also relayed a few mantras that seemed rather hackneyed by Williams's standards, like "When you get an impulse that feels good, do it." The next two acts seemed to confirm that this séance was a bit of a joke at our expense.
In the second act, "Women," a series of female performers took the stage for something like Tennessee Williams karaoke, with Franco and Nakadate as judges/coaches. On a giant screen a video showed Franco performing the male half of The Glass Menagerie's central scene, in which crippled Laura and would-be suitor Jim grow close during an electrical outage before he reveals he's engaged. Each woman who took the stage took a microphone from the previous performer and was asked to speak Laura's lines as they appeared on the screen in response to Franco speaking Jim's part on video.
Some fared better than others, though all were confused when told to face towards the audience while also needing to read the lines appearing on the screen. One woman came out, turned to the audience while her lines flashed behind her and said, "Oh my god, I'm so nervous," and proceeded to take out her cell phone and call her mother. Nakadate, the stricter of the duo, barked "next," and a young woman in a bikini and high heels strutted out to take the microphone. Happily, the two best performers came out during the scene's climactic moments, including when Jim and Laura dance and accidentally break the horn off her prized glass unicorn figure—Franco advised the performer: "You're speaking about the unicorn, but you're also speaking about yourself." Later, as Jim revealed his relationship status after sharing a (hilariously pantomimed) kiss with Laura, Franco suggested: "He's breaking your heart, maybe you could cry." Nakadate, a crying expert, echoed his direction.
For the third act, "Men," a series of male performers delivered The Glass Menagerie's closing monologue, in which Laura's brother Tom—who set up the disastrous meeting with Jim and fled shortly thereafter, abandoning his sister and mother—tearfully tries to rid himself of the painful memory of his sister. Franco and Nakadate, who sat at the edge of the stage during the second act, remained off-stage during the first two actors' monologues—both of which were very good. The third actor, who turned out to be performance artist Ryan McNamara, stopped about a third of his way into the monologue and asked for Franco and Nakadate's help. "When I do this I picture myself walking down a windy alley," McNamara explained, "so if you could just blow in my hair." After another false start he stopped again and said: "I'm not an actor, I can't cry on cue, so if Laurel you just keep blowing, and James can you spit a little under my eye so it looks like I'm crying." "Won't that distract from your performance," Franco asked." "No."
McNamara finally delivered the monologue, while Nakadate and Franco crawled in front of him blowing his hair and spitting under his eyes from one side then the other, earning a huge round of applause for their combined efforts. The act ended with performance artist and one-time Franco colleague Kalup Linzy singing the monologue in a long blonde wig and a very short neon green bathrobe of sorts, his voice alternating between an autotuned masculine pitch and overly feminine, soap opera-evoking shriek.
Just as it became increasingly enjoyable as it progressed, Three Performances in Search of Tennessee also focused more and more intently on one of Williams's best-known works. Though the opening séance neither seemed wholly serious nor completely disingenuous, the second and third acts mixed moments of hilarity with a few calm and sober dramatic highs. This didn't happen so much during the women's karaoke competition—although, near the end, the interactions between performers and video-Franco got less awkward. But the final act did Tom's exceptionally heartbreaking Glass Menagerie epilogue justice. The audience certainly left with a pretty thorough understanding of the play's two most important scenes, although to what extent that constitutes a successful search for Tennessee Williams is for each attendee to determine for themself.