Located at the thematic intersection of sexual attraction and professional jealousy is Billy and Me, a new play by Terry Teachout (Satchmo at the Waldorf) about the uneasy friendship of playwrights Tennessee Williams and William Inge.
As the title implies, Williams is the narrator of the tale, “a memory play about a memory play,” whose first act is set in 1944 Chicago, as the great Southern dramatist’s initial stage triumph, The Glass Menagerie, undergoes a rocky tryout prior to Broadway. The setting is a gay bar a few blocks from where an inebriated Laurette Taylor is stumbling through her lines in an effort to breathe life into the character of Amanda Wingfield.
The genesis of that classic play would have been dramatic fodder enough, but Teachout focuses instead on a St. Louis theater critic – Inge – invited to the bar by Williams, who has seduction in mind. Williams, of course, is flamboyantly open about his homosexuality, while Inge is torturously in denial about his own orientation.
That interpersonal tension would also have made for an engrossing evening of theater, but instead Billy and Me jumps ahead in time 15 years and all but dismisses Inge’s sexuality and the “did-they-or-didn’t-they” of his relationship with Williams. Instead, the scene changes to Inge’s swanky New York apartment, the result of four hit plays – Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop and Dark at the Top of the Stairs – all of which were then adapted by Hollywood.
Williams has had his successes as well – Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to name a few – but his latest effort, the experimental Camino Real, was panned by the critics and shunned by the public, sending him into an angry funk. Act Two takes place following the opening night performance of Inge’s A Loss of Roses, and with the reviews in hand, he too tastes the bitterness of rejection.
So the play spends some time letting its main characters vent about the destructive nature of reviewers, an ironic topic given that Teachout is the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal. And with venom to spare, Williams turns on Inge, angry that the inferior, more prosaic writer has enjoyed more commercial success.
Teachout notes the many parallels between Williams and Inge – their Midwest roots, their domineering mothers and their self-images as social outsiders. But theatrically, they are a study in contrasts – Williams was a larger-than-life, convention-flaunting free spirit, Inge an introspective introvert – which gives the play an imbalance.
Chances are theatergoers will be more familiar with Williams and his body of work than Inge’s. What’s more, Williams speaks in colorful – and occasionally off-color – metaphors (“colder than a penguin’s pecker”), while Inge speaks with a verbal caution that is dull by comparison.
As a result, it is fairly easy for Nicholas Richberg to walk off with the evening’s acting honors. We first see him as the aged Williams, looking back over his life, before an Amadeus-like transformation to the young, dapper bad boy of the theater. Rather than an impersonation, he gives us the essence of Williams, a commanding synthesis of leer, strut and drawl. Tom Wahl is fine as Inge, but he was probably destined to be in Richberg’s shadow, just as time has shown Williams to be the superior playwright. In many ways, then, Wahl has the more difficult assignment, including an agonized second act monologue in which Inge contemplates suicide.
Filling out the cast is Cliff Burgess in a trio of supporting roles – a stage manager, the doctor who tends to Inge’s near-lethal emergency and, most interestingly, a slightly sinister waiter at the gay bar.
Victor Becker’s scenic design is a clever series of movable set fragments, which helps establish the abstract memory play mood, aided by Paul Black’s atmospheric lighting and David Thomas’s impressionistic soundscape.
Director William Hayes has been working with Teachout on shaping the script of Billy and Me for the past two years, leading to this world premiere production. There is plenty to mine in these characters, but currently, it feels like the playwright has yet to decide on a cohesive story line. Still, it is encouraging that the company acclaimed for concentrating on existing American classics has rolled up its sleeves and immersed itself in the harder task of developing new works.
BILLY AND ME, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Dec. 31. $75. 561-514-4042.