Chicago Theatre Review
Williams and Wilder and Albee and Miller, Oh My!
Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody – Writers Theatre
It’s been said that applause begets applause and laughter begets laughter. There not a more apt description of the opening night audience’s response to this brilliantly funny parody. Wickedly co-created by Second City’s Tim Ryder and Tim Sniffen, and, in collaboration with Writers Theatre, set down in print by Mr. Sniffen, this 70-minute absurd comedy imagines a scenario that hilariously brings together a dozen of dramatic literature’s most famous characters, posing the question, “What if all these famous characters were to meet?”
Played by six talented actors, a congregation of characters from the fertile imaginations of playwrights Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller and Thornton Wilder all, for various reasons, serendipitously find themselves in New Orleans one night. This mixed lot coincidentally congregate at a hotel in the French Quarter. In this lovely building, designed with intricate detail by Linda Buchanan, we feel as if we’ve been dropped onto the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets in the heart of the Vieux Carre district. With its lacy wrought iron balconies and green louvered shutters, it’s the perfect two-story setting for this comedy.
This is a play especially dedicated to audiences who know and love the works of these four treasured American writers. For this breed of theatergoer, a trip down the rabbit hole to a theatrical Wonderland awaits. The wacky, loosely woven plot incorporates many prominent denizens of drama. First we’re greeted by the folksy Stage Manager of “Our Town,” who serves as an interactive narrator and, as in Thornton Wilder’s classic, morphs into several other characters throughout the evening. Next, from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” we meet the bawdy, slightly batty Blanche DuBois and her sweat-soaked, bellowing brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. Then we encounter Willy Loman, from Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” back on the road again, but this time heading toward a self-help seminar in New Orleans. Finally we discover Albee’s eternally battling, liquor-swilling married couple, George and Martha, from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” How these divergent characters find some sort of common ground is the genius of this clever entertainment.
Co-directed with pacing and style by Michael Halbertstam and Stuart Carden, this delectable parody moves along on the strength of its gifted actors. Costumed with flair by Jenny Mannis, all six appropriately look and perform as if they’ve just stepped from the pages of their respective plays. Sean Fortunato, a familiar and favorite face at Writers Theatre, is open and welcoming as the Stage Manager. Employing a charming, countrified accent for most of his dialogue, Mr. Fortunato abruptly and humorously switches to a more serious tone whenever imparting significant information. He flawlessly becomes Biff Loman, then a member of Stanley’s bowling team and finally a very funny pizza delivery man from the “Waiting-for-Godot” Pizza Parlor.
Jennifer Engstrom practically steals the show as sensual, over-the-top Blanche DuBois. As the Stage Manager amusingly says of her, “Blanche is to drag queens what Jesus is to Christians.” Continually striking dramatic, provocative poses, Ms. Engstrom, costumed in a pink, tightly-fitting, lacy frock, spends much of the play caressing her own voluptuous body and mooning after every man in sight. Michael Perez’s untamed, animal-like Stanley Kowalski who also spouts impressive quotations, ironically appears to be the most intelligent character on the stage. Perez’s occasional gut-busting Marlon Brando-like braying of “Stel-la-a-a” is attributed to the poor connection he’s experiencing while talking on a cheap cell phone. In addition to Stanley, Mr. Perez also has some funny moments as Tom, from “The Glass Menagerie,” and Happy, from “Death of a Salesman.” His perspiration stained tee shirt is another inspired piece from Ms. Mannis’ clever costume designs.
As the saddest, most dejected character of the bunch, Mark Grapey creates a Willy Loman who’s just trying to travel down the road to respect and redemption. His character elicits more sympathy than all the others, as poor Willy seems to continually discover his path of good intentions thwarted. The poor salesman eventually finds himself at a dead end—literally. In a particularly funny scene, that’s straight out of “Our Town,” Mr. Grapey is suddenly seated among a group in grave-like rows of chairs that represent the tombstones of the local cemetery. Grapey’s appearance and tongue-in-cheek delivery as Willy Loman is spot-on perfect for this role.
Rounding out the cast are Karen Jane Woditsch as a biting, bitchy Martha and John Hoogenakker as a poor, put upon George (to be succeeded by Greg Matthew Anderson, beginning July 19). As the ceaselessly bickering, ever battling, name-calling, booze-swilling New England campus couple, they secretly harbor the knowledge that they have a pretend son. Eventually we discover that a faux child isn’t the only lie they’re telling about their lives. This talented duo rages on throughout the play, taking time to play other roles in additional scenarios, and constantly lampooning each other, as well as everyone else in this play. They’re a two-person “Les Miserables;” all that’s missing is the barricade.
Tennessee Williams once wrote that “the theatre is a place where one has time for the problems of people to whom one would ordinarily show the door.” He couldn’t have better described this parody. This short play is overrun with characters from other dramas, all coincidentally staying at the same New Orleans hotel. Their problems are as myriad and diverse as their personalities, yet somehow they all manage to work together in helping each other. The “kindness of strangers” that Blanche so enjoys permeates every conflict and, somehow, miraculously and humorously brings this absurd, unpredictable play to a happy conclusion.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 4-July 31 by Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-242-6000 or by going to www.writerstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com