Off-Broadway Review: “The Gentleman Caller” at the Cherry Lane Theatre

Joseph Verlezza

  • New York Theatre Critic

“The Gentleman Caller” was the predecessor of Tennessee Williams first successful play “The Glass Menagerie” which opened in 1944 in Chicago and happens to be the title of a new play by Philip Dawkins which is having its New York premiere at Cherry Lane Theatre, being produced by Abingdon Theatre Company. Perhaps Mr. Dawkins should have taken the hint from the playwrights he pays homage to and realize this present manifestation should be considered a precursor to a script that reveals the underlying pain and struggle of his characters to counterpoise the gay sexual farce that is currently being presented. Humor without substance or emotion can be nothing more than a manner to foist laughter, and there is enough risible physicality, references and one liners woven into this dialogue to undermine the essence at the core of his two characters.

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In Act One, William Inge, working as a newspaper drama critic, invites Tennessee Williams to his apartment in St. Louis for an interview, several weeks before the opening of “The Glass Menagerie” in Chicago. There is a lot of talk but not much is said. There is quite a bit of foreplay but no actual winner in the sexual cat and mouse game farcically played out. The second act opens with Tennessee coyly saying “Welcome back. Nothing is different, and everything’s changed.” No truer words have ever been spoken. It is a repeat of the first act, nothing new happens to add depth to the characters who play the same sexual charade, at a different time, in a different place, like Déjà vu, producing no plot development or dramatic arc. It is New Year’s Eve in Williams Chicago hotel room, after curtain on opening night, and Inge is the gentleman caller to offer his congratulations. Finally, the closeted playwright is given a futile, loquacious monologue about his childhood that reveals too little too late.

The non-traditional casting is interesting but really adds nothing to the body or intentions of the script. Juan Francisco Villa exudes an animated Tennessee that lands most of the one liners with perfection but has difficulty layering his character with any subtlety and excavating what lies beneath the surface. He manages to savor any glimpse of obscure emotion but, due to the scripts shortcomings, this complex literary giant is reduced to a flamboyant, oversexed, gay alcoholic. His performance is admirable, as he seduces the audience with his charming southern drawl. Daniel K. Isaac has more difficulty maneuvering the trepidation of the depressed, suicidal Inge. Rather than turning inward he seems disconnected from the character which produces a void in the chemistry between the two wounded souls. It seems ironic that two paragons of drama, who flooded pages with storms of emotion, leaves the audience with little more than a few laughs.

Director Tony Speciale erred on the side of comedy as he moves the production along at a steady but uniform pace. The conceptual scenic design consisting of towers of manuscript pages crowned with different lamps created by Sara C. Walsh is interesting and is enhanced by the moody lighting of Zach Blane. This may be an entertaining evening, but not what one would expect when delving into the distressed personal lives of two extraordinary talents of the twentieth century.

THE GENTLEMAN CALLER

The cast of “The Gentleman Caller” includes Daniel K. Isaac and Juan Francisco Villa.

“The Gentleman Caller” features a scenic design by Sara C. Walsh, costume design by Hunter Kaczorowski, lighting design by Zach Blane, and sound design and original music by Christian Frederickson. Production photos by Maria Baranova.

“The Gentleman Caller” plays through Saturday May 26 at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street, NYC). For more information about “The Gentleman Caller,” tickets, season subscriptions and group bookings visit  abingdontheatre.org or call 212-868-2055. Running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes including a 10-minute intermission.

Photo: Daniel K. Isaac and Juan Francisco Villa in “The Gentleman Caller.” Credit: Maria Baranova.