Daniel MacIvor’s new play imagines what Tennessee Williams might have said and done in his Vancouver hotel room during two days he spent here in 1980 when the Playhouse opened his play The Red Devil Battery Sign.
Williams was 68 and sick, addicted to alcohol, prescription drugs, and pretty young men, and well past his artistic prime. Three years later he’d be dead. But he was still one of the greatest living playwrights on the planet when he visited this theatrical backwater.
MacIvor, one of Canada’s best playwrights—though neither over-the-hill nor of Williams’ stature—gives us a vivid portrait of the private man: charming, frustrating, extremely narcissistic. Other than two fine monologues that bookend the play, nothing here tells us much about what made Williams the artist tick. But Linda Moore’s stylish Arts Club production provides an entertaining, sometimes poignant portrait of a complex human being in pain, his aura still sufficiently powerful to hold others within his orbit.
The form of the play is a familiar variation on the odd couple. Like Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser and John Murrell’s Memoir, the aged, demanding artist is served by a long-suffering, loyal retainer. The hopelessly dysfunctional Playwright (Allan Gray) is entirely dependent on his fastidious Assistant (David Marr). Once they were lovers. Once the Assistant was the Playwright’s muse. Now he wakes him and puts him to bed, keeps him on task, and changes his soiled underwear.
The dynamic changes when the Assistant hires a young hustler to be the Playwright’s opening night escort. The Young Man (Charles Christien Gallant) seems ignorant and boorish, just a fresh supplier of drugs and sex. But he proves to be an interesting, attractive character. His enthusiastic reactions to the play he’s seen make for some of the sweetest, funniest moments in His Greatness.
The title phrase is applied ironically by the characters to each other. But a genuine residual greatness remains somehow attached to the Playwright, a rapidly dimming inner glow of genius and charisma.
Gray, who looks a little like Williams, does an excellent job conveying the buoyancy and charm as well as the frustrations of a man on a rapid downhill slide, though I found some of his vocal mannerisms distracting. Marr shows great comic timing and emotional depth as the Assistant. And Gallant—a star on the rise—nicely underplays the Young Man.
Kevin McAllister's handsome hotel room set is expansive and elegant with just a hint of the seedy and cheap that reflects the Playwright's decline. Alan Brodie provides dramatic lighting effects, including beautiful slashes of light across the darkness that barely illuminate the Playwright in the opening and closing monologues, suggesting the final sparks of his creative fire.
MacIvor takes some liberty in suggesting that the two Vancouver papers broke Williams’ heart by trashing his play. Province critic Bob Allan actually gave Red Devil Battery Sign a pretty positive review, calling it, “despite the flaws … a fascinating theatrical evening.” I’d say the same for His Greatness.