It’s a little surprising that Tennessee Williams’ intensely autobiographical play (begun in 1939 and finished in 1978) isn’t staged more often, though perhaps that’s about to change. Its setting in a boarding house-cum-refugee camp in New Orleans’s French Quarter has all kinds of extra resonances in that city’s prolonged post-Katrina nightmare, and its conglomeration of society’s destitute and penniless eking out a rent by bartering with their landlady and selling themselves on the streets offers an unsettling range of solutions for a country with ballooning housing and employment problems. Hopefully, as audiences become more familiar with Vieux Carré, productions will become more adventurous than the Pearl Theatre Company’s frustratingly by-the-book staging.
The most successful element in this production, in fact, is the set design (by Harry Feiner), which does away with the boarding house’s awkward doors and walls and instead has each room’s furniture strewn in clumps across the stage, leaving it to actors to mark the boundaries between spaces. And in a play about placeless and vulnerable outcasts looking for even the smallest safe space to call their own, this wall-less Vieux Carré (a local expression used interchangeably with “French Quarter”) speaks volumes about each character’s uneasy balance between needing shelter and craving meaningful contact.
Against the open set and its giant color-morphing backdrop, however, director Austin Pendleton and his cast play things very safe. Certainly, Williams’s memoir-like story of The Writer (Sean McNall) coming to grips with his sexuality and the responsibilities of adulthood presents much of its cast as a set of character types, but this production’s performers do little to overcome that challenge. With the notable exceptions of Rachel Botchan (as runaway college-educated Northerner Jane) and Carol Schultz (as the boarding house’s landlady), every character seems stuck in a timeless void. Even McNall, as the nameless Williams stand-in, has become more of a meta-textual narrator and chorus than a character in his own right by the play’s second half.
All this makes for an unfortunately static portrait of life teetering on the (segregated and openly racist) edge of America, as if there’s nothing to be gleaned from Vieux Carré’s cast of gay men, old widows and listless young adults. The Writer comments to Mrs. Wire, “I oughta pay you tuition,” but by this point in the play he seems to have taken all the courses her boarding house offers. Likewise, the Pearl’s production has no glaring weak points, but it also fails to make much of Williams’ extremely rich narrative of self-discovery, memory and compromise. Though the play has undeniable historical and biographical value, staging it like some revered artifact rather than a lively play with plentiful contemporary resonances keeps this production from teaching us much more than the sexual tribulations of young Tennessee Williams. Which is a shame, because Vieux Carré doesn’t have to seem old, or square.
Vieux Carré runs at the Pearl Theater (80 St. Mark's Pl) until June 14.