On a Leash Productions

at Cafe Voltaire

Watching Tennessee Williams one-acts is like flipping through an artist’s sketchbook: they’re filled with simple, evocative jottings that explore a dramatic or poetic idea on a small scale. Such works often gain strength from simple stagings: the spare production of two of Williams’s pieces on view at Cafe Voltaire highlights the works themselves–though these one-acts only hint at the talent of this great modern dramatist.

The brief The Lady of Larkspur Lotion is a somewhat obvious bit of melodrama, interesting mainly as a study for Williams’s masterwork A Streetcar Named Desire. In this bleak snapshot Mrs. Hardwick-Moore, a fading beauty in an alcoholic tailspin, has resorted to prostitution. To make matters worse, she still cannot make rent on her roach-ridden room in a seedy New Orleans boardinghouse. When her landlady threatens to evict her, Mrs. Hardwick-Moore insists she’s only waiting for a dividend check from her Brazilian rubber plantation. Like Blanche DuBois, she’s romanticized her past not only for the sake of appearances but to make the present livable. Just as she’s about to be thrown out, a writer and fellow alcoholic who lives across the hall comes to her defense. His support of her delusions also supports his own about himself: to comfort himself in his sorry state, he boasts about all the great works he’s created.

Williams putting himself in a play that also includes the blueprint for one of his greatest characters is interesting, but the play itself is nothing remarkable. The speeches seem strained, and the themes are declared too obviously. This one-act’s cramped quality might explain why Williams went on to write a full-length play to better explore the story.

Like the script, the production is only somewhat successful. A too-young Julie Daley tries hard, but she can’t pull off the tarnished grace of a Mrs. Hardwick-Moore. Mark Vanasse as the writer pushes an obvious speech about “the hard-knuckled hand of need” with too much belligerence, which gives it a hollow feel. On the whole the production has the air of a staged reading.

Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen is the stronger of the two one-acts because it stands on its own, and this seems to inspire more confidence in the actors. In another dingy room, this time somewhere in New York, a husband awakens from a drunken sleep and tells his wife what he remembers of the night before. When he asks her to talk to him “like the rain,” she begins to relate a dream of splendid isolation, away from all the troubles of life.

This desperate dramatic poem draws intensity from its elemental structure: the characters and their sad relationship are powerfully defined in two simple speeches. The script is realized with quiet despair by Daley and Vanasse, and director Chris Velasquez’s easy style serves the language nicely.

The Voltaire basement, with its dust, crumbling plaster, and exposed brick, is a natural for both Mrs. Hardwick-Moore’s wretched furnished room and the couple’s sad tenement. And Tennessee Williams fans will be pleased to find these lesser works competently interpreted.