The Two-Character Play
New World Stages
Connoisseurs of eccentric and flamboyant acting might have guessed that pairing Brad Dourif and Amanda Plummer on stage would produce a highly combustible collision of tics, wild mannerisms and crazy eyes. And these actors don't disappoint in this production of a late and hellishly difficult Tennessee Williams play (through September 1), which was written after the unhappy playwright had been confined for three months to a mental hospital.
Felice (Dourif) and Clare (Plummer) are a couple of moth-eaten thespians who are stuck in a theater with doors that will not open. They are forced to entertain themselves with a play that Felice has written called The Two-Character Play, and this play-within-a-play concerns siblings whose father shot their mother and then himself. The brother and sister have been left to their own devices; they don't have money to buy food and are afraid to go outside. Neighboring children taunt them and call them crazy. They are so traumatized by what has happened that they can barely function, and Williams does not sentimentalize their plight—this is a cold, hard play, filled with bitter truths and fear and nausea. It's very tough to take.
Plummer alternates between the sweet coyness of a little girl and the madness of a homeless woman who has been out on the streets too long; Dourif does a kind of German Expressionist cocking of his head and clawing of his hands as his desperation mounts. Clare and Felice are at the end of their tether just as Williams seems to be at the end of his. The stage is often dark, so that they have to light matches to read or even see each other’s faces. These two actors vividly convey the feeling of being trapped, stalking each other around the stage like boxers hoping to get in a knockout punch and go home to some kind of relief.
Dourif and Plummer create a sense of profound alienation and chilliness and the kind of nothingness we might discern in the dark at the edge of a cliff as we realize that there is no longer any ground beneath our feet. As I watched this production, I thought about just how much pain Williams must have been in to have written something so bleak and frightened, but this kind of thinking is evasive. If we look for answers in Williams’s own life, or in how the play seems to reflect on his relationship with his sister Rose, we are keeping The Two-Character Play where it can't hurt us. If we let it in, then we have to admit that we all know this kind of pain, but to admit this would leave us with no illusions to cling to. Taking in this play fully is like being out in the open sea and letting go of your life raft, treading water until you are too tired to tread water anymore.