Gare St. Lazare Players

at the Chicago Actors Project

But what the hell . . . if every guy along Broadway who kids himself was to drop dead there wouldn’t be nobody left. Ain’t it the truth, Charlie?

–from Hughie, by Eugene O’Neill

Small-time losers in cheap New York hotels: such is the stuff as dreams are made on, at least in the work of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. Lonely guys, living on borrowed time, ebbing luck, and the edge of despair. For O’Neill and Williams, writing in periods of American prosperity following world wars, these drifters and self-deluding dreamers were the hidden face of a nation too absorbed in its own affluent facade to recognize the spiritual disorder underneath.

The Gare St. Lazare Players–drifters themselves, somewhat, since the restaurant that served as their home base burned down last November–have taken a pair of short plays by O’Neill and Williams, stripped them down to minimalist bare bones, and purged them of the affectations we too often associate with these distinctive stylists. But the language remains pure, and the chords that director Bob Meyer and his superb actors strike ring true to our own time as well as to the playwrights’ original intentions. Just an hour long, this double bill is one of the best evenings of theater in town right now.

O’Neill’s Hughie was written as a dialogue between two men: a small-time gambler, Erie Smith, and the night clerk at the dumpy midtown Manhattan hotel in which Erie resides. The night clerk is new, a replacement for Erie’s longtime and recently deceased pal Hughie; Erie sets out to establish with the new guy the same sort of relationship that he had with Hughie. That relationship, apparently, consisted mainly of Erie regaling Hughie with self-aggrandizing (and self-deceiving) tales of Broadway nightlife–the dames and dollies, the punks and pimps, the saps and suckers, and especially the gamblers, with whose luck and power Erie longs to be identified.

In a masterful display of character revelation through dialogue, O’Neill draws us into Erie’s world–a world in which it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish the small truths from the big lies. Erie is a garrulous sort– O’Neill describes him as “a teller of tales,” as “a Broadway sport and a Wise Guy.” He’s the kind of fellow who, invited to Hughie’s house for dinner, begins to regale Hughie’s children with reminiscences of racehorses (“kids like animal stories”). His conversation is funny, but chilling, too–infused with an inescapable edge of desperation and loss sharpened to a nearly unbearable point by the death of Hughie. On one level, Hughie is a brilliant character portrait; it’s also a meditation on modern man’s loss of faith and the death of God. Like all O’Neill–especially now, before more sophisticated audiences–Hughie teeters dangerously on the edge of excessive message-sending; it’s up to the actor and director to preserve the truth of the work without falling over that edge.

This challenge is accomplished, brilliantly, by Jim Ortlieb, the actor playing Erie, and by director Bob Meyer. They have transformed the play into a monologue, with the audience filling in for the night clerk. Having done away with the second actor, they also dispense with all but a minimum of movement and visual effect. Where O’Neill took three paragraphs to describe both the physical and sociopolitical aspects of the hotel lobby in which the play is set, Meyer has put Ortlieb on a bare stage in front of a stark white backdrop; Ortlieb moves as little as possible, looking out at the audience with soul-baring intensity. And rather than trying to fit Ortlieb into the 1928 visual mold that O’Neill so specifically called for, Meyer dresses his star in a plain white shirt and dark pants. The effect is totally contemporary, like a Richard Avedon portrait of some wired guy you’d see hanging out in an all-night diner; as a result, Erie’s words ring with an eerie recognizability that underscores both their comedy and their sadness. Barking out his shaggy dog stories between bursts of taut, compulsive laughter, Ortlieb is absolutely real and absolutely terrifying: he does more with nearly no motion than, say, John Malkovich did with miles of gesture in last fall’s Burn This!

Tennessee Williams’s Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen, dating from the early 1950s, is a perfect complement to Hughie: the way Williams’s flowing, elegiac poetry sets off the gritty punch of O’Neill’s prose underscores the two authors’ common concern with human loneliness. Where in Hughie O’Neill shows us Erie trying and failing to shrug off the void left by the loss of his friend, in Talk to Me Williams splits his own contradictory interior monologue into two voices: a man, shown lying on a bed in a small hotel room, and a woman sitting beside him. The man (like Erie in Hughie) has apparently returned after going on a long drinking binge; he recites an appalling litany of urban sorrows (“People do terrible things to a person when he’s unconscious in this city. . . . I’ve been passed around like a dirty postcard . . .”), and then urges his companion to “talk to me like the rain.” And talk she does: an extraordinary, long, and heartbreakingly beautiful reverie of escape–from the city, from the man, from life itself. “I’ll always have clean things,” she rhapsodizes. “I’ll dress in white. . . . I will read long books and the journals of dead writers. I will feel closer to them than I ever felt to people I used to know before I withdrew from the world . . .” And as they talk, a child’s voice (here the voice of a young woman) gently sings, “Rain, rain, go away . . .”

As with Hughie, director Bob Meyer has boiled down Williams’s haunting mood piece to a perfectly etched single image while coaxing unorthodox but appropriate performances from his cast. Bob Kohut, as the man, lies on the bed in his underwear–we virtually never see his face–while Suellen Burton as the woman sits quietly beside, then in front of, him. They never connect, yet they are always relating. They are, after all, one soul. Burton delivers her long monologue with a flat, dry, unaccented precision that’s very different from the drawling, faded-florid cadences one usually hears in Williams’s writing: the approach works marvelously, highlighting the substance of Williams’s poetic images by taking them out of their stylistic context.

This is riveting theater–careful choices made to expose the lasting power (and, certainly, the continuing influence) of our two greatest writers for the stage.