Tuesday, September 25, 2012

REVIEW: CROMER'S "SWEET BIRD" FINE BUT FLAWED - 'Sweet Bird of Youth' at The Goodman Theatre

Diane Lane and Finn Wittrock/ Photo: Liz Lauren

As a proud and unabashed fan of director David Cromer, my year has been a tumult of ups and downs. The native Chicagoan's reconfiguration of Jonathan Larson's "Rent" in April at American Theater Company was a dimly lit, squeaky-voiced affair that left me cold, uninvested, and frankly quite outraged. Lo and behold, several months later, "Tribes" at New York's Barrow Street Theatre proved among the most moving and generously acted family dramas I've seen anywhere in recent seasons, and Cromer's direction was just about the easiest in-the-round staging one can possibly imagine. 

Coming down from the perilous annals of domesticity and coming home to the dark and dreary alleyways of Chicago's Loop, Cromer's new revival of Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth," which opened on Monday night at the Goodman Theatre, falls somewhere in the middle of the two. Its impeccable highs are stratospheric in all around heft, while its lows, though sure-fire failings, are still comfortably airborne.

Cromer, ever lauded for his revelatory "Our Town" by The Hypocrites in Chicago and at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City, has done well by a challenging text. Williams' "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" was recently announced for a Broadway revival, the show's fourth, to open 2013. The third in a decade. "Sweet Bird of Youth," originally on Broadway in 1959,  has been revived only once, in 1975, and has yet to be seen again on The Great White Way. The play and Goodman's comeback kid production are not unlike main character Alexandra Del Lago, tirelessly endeavoring to be renewed. Cromer nearly scored a Broadway theatre for his revival a season ago, but plans were ultimately scrapped. This is not without reason.

"Sweet Bird" is not nearly as sensational as Williams' other dramas, hovering on a poetic plane that puts inordinately strong focus on its characters' prosperous pasts while mostly ignoring the present moment. Long sections lack interest and involvement, star power or no. Act Three is the exception to the play's predominant inaction, finally displaying decisive aggression with consequence and risk, primarily from Alexandra's loveless companion, Chance Wayne. 

But no matter the effort, Williams' humid summer poetry just isn't as grounded in these characters as it is in his stronger works. Cromer also has altered the construction of acts to create a truncated middle third, lasting a minuscule twenty-five minutes. As the house lights went up, the audience murmured the familiar hubbub of confusion. "Should I stay or should I go now?" Though tonally sensible, and being a whole world unto itself, the incredibly brief act leaves little time for absorption and little desire for another Snickers bar.

The brave and dependably unexpected interpreter of great American classics, Cromer has made one of his characteristically brave and unexpected choices in this star-studded production. Diane Lane, the beloved actress of the silver screen - perhaps more so, once upon a time - nominally leads the cast as the withering cinema crone, Alexandra del Lago or, depending on the day's mood, the Princess Kosmonopolis. But not until the actress' ultimate, chillingly self-absorbed speech is the captive audience privileged with an unfiltered vantage of Ms. Lane's gorgeous face. For a three hour, mostly mild drama, that is an unbearable eternity of foreplay.

And an absolute tragedy for the Diane Lane Fanclub. But the choice, itself, is a dramatically brilliant one by Cromer. Keith Parham, a lighting designer who, as evident from his Louvre-worthy stage pictures in last season's "The Iceman Cometh," is anything but afraid of the dark, has riddled the landscape with  shadows. In the first act, Ms. Lane and actor Finn Wittrock, of the recent Broadway revival of "Death of A Salesman," as Chance Wayne, are scantily clad in silken pajamas and meticulously tossed hairdos. 

Finn Wittrock and Diane Lane/ Photo: Liz Lauren
Stepping into the unlit holes of the stage as the pair hides away in a lavish seaside hotel bedroom, the two acquire a sumptuous sexual mystique - begging more questions as to their circumstances than offering definitive answers. But upon their return in Williams' Act Three, Parham's shadows sinisterly transform to bottomless pits, embodying their isolation, their insecurities, and their loathed incompletion. That is, until Ms. Lane's final monologue, when she, like the honest-to-goodness star she is, steps downstage into a blinding pool of light, and for the first time, reveals her true, striking youth. That moment is the one standout achievement of Lane's performance - a performance that otherwise is in need of much greater variance and a hearty helping of genuine struggle - for it is only then that the play's paranoid obsession with time and the precept of "youth" is called into question. 

Ms. Lane's Del Lago has the vocal scratch and bodily crunching of a craggy witch, huffing and puffing on a vain canister of oxygen between hashish inhalations for two hours of Williams' play. But after regaining her missing confidence during a career revelation in the last scene - her most recent film that she believed to be a flop actually proved a huge financial hit - she sheds decades of age both mental and physical. The "Sweet Bird" flies in oh so many shapes. Alexandra looks for it in the suave beauty and breathtaking charisma of Chance Wayne, and Chance seeks to reclaim his youth in puerile former girlfriend, Heavenly Finley (Kristina Johnson). 

Williams, a similarly eccentric man, quite famous in his time, knew the desperation of Alexandra, surrounding himself, in his later years, with a flock of attractive young men wanting to climb up the social ladder - not unlike the sculpted, fame obsessed Chance in his efforts to become a movie star.  Chance Wayne reaches back to his youth as well, and though nearer than Alexandra, it remains sadly out of reach. Wayne desires to reunite with his girl, the spiritually named, Heavenly. Heavenly inspires the only winning projection of Maya Ciarrocchi's aesthetically distracting design, whose watery movement often resembles an Olympian's desktop screensaver. But her image of the night sky, covering the walls of a bar in St. Cloud - the town where Chance grew up - paints imagery both stellar and earthly, bound by time.

The first eighty minute act, imparting necessary, however languid, exposition and establishing the pair's unusual relationship - one terribly risqué for 1959 - has not quite found its footing. But that misfire is not entirely the fault of the production or the actors. Though former New York Times critic, Brooks Atkinson, would disagree, "Sweet Bird of Youth" is simply not Williams' best. But some factors are within the jurisdiction of the creative team. Ms. Lane, initially charming and refreshingly corroded for such a real-life beauty, passively wilts away while the duo's chemistry never harnesses the electricity and unbridled heat so present in their Vogue appearances. The actors also have to battle with James Schuette's grandiose metallic bright blue ellipse and pearly white set pieces, which, though changing from act to act, squander intimacy as the gargantua disperses passions. 

Mr. Wittrock's performance accumulates depth and confidence as the play builds, ending a damaged individual in stark contrast to his exquisite exterior. The actor, looking like a nineties bad-but-not-so-bad boy, knowingly uses his amazing body to get whatever he wants - the character speaking proudly of his sexual gift - being, at times, naive, manipulative, or craftily cunning despite the naivety of his wide eyes. Mr. Wittrock's quiet, textured interaction with Heavenly's Aunt Nonnie (Penny Slusher) lends the character the empathy of those in the audience who have, at one time or another, been in his young success-and-love-hungry shoes. 

Heavenly and Chance have been separated by the girl's father, Boss Finley, a racist politician who, though stark and somewhat out of place, reflects the political and social tenor of the day. Despite the character's flatness, with any potential love for his daughter and personal vulnerability being replaced by a fussy pundit's loudmouthed extremism, Chicago favorite John Judd gives an extremely watchable, old world performance that, more so than any other element at play, sets "Sweet Bird" firmly in the south.

Although this admittedly alluring new production of "Sweet Bird of Youth" is not the visceral stunner that last season's "Camino Real" was, and though it sadly misses the coalescence of atmospheric decadence and emotional concentrate that forcibly drove "The Iceman Cometh," Cromer's aesthetic glistens during his glorious third act. As Chance Wayne walks around that sparkly lounge, the furniture literally revolves around him, slowly and gracefully - a visual metaphor for his undeserved egotism and the rampant uncertainty he faces. The revolution also resembles a clock's second hand ceaselessly ticking in a circle - the same defeated sound heard in the ending bedroom scene. That final, skillfully-rendered hour goes down smooth with the finesse of a fine aged whiskey. But don't let the ease of the swallow fool you. David Cromer and Tennessee Williams will get you drunk. -Johnny Oleksinski

At Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, (312) 443-3800. Through October 28. Visit www.goodmantheatre.org for more information.