KPBS AIRDATE: October 29, 1999
The La Jolla Playhouse production of “Sweet Bird of Youth” is like an elegant, fragile ceramic bowl. From a distance, it’s lovely, but when you look closer, it’s got lots of little cracks that mar the finished product.
Some of the problem was in the clay, so to speak, what the potter or shaper of the piece had to work with. This isn’t Tennessee Williams’ strongest creation; it’s less lyrical than his masterpieces, though it’s populated by the playwright’s character prototypes — each more compelling in other plays, especially the earlier, Pulitzer Prize-winning “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” where there’s another promising young buck who disappoints friends and family, tangled up with a disturbed, shrewish middle-aged woman and a powerful Big Daddy. To extend the ceramic metaphor just one thought further, the potter in this case, director Michael Greif, has fashioned far better works of art as well.
This “Bird” is Greif’s swan-song, his last production as artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, before he returns to New York. It bears some of his trademark beauty and filmic vision, but none of the excitement or subtlety he brought to knockout productions like “Therese Racquin” or “Dogeaters.” The play itself is too explicit in pounding and expounding its theme of vanished youth. The playwright hammers home the message in his fading filmstar and her aging gigolo, both running from their various failures. The younger man, though, is drawn back to the Southern town of his birth, where he left behind his long-lost love, the now-broken, barren daughter of the influential town politico, Boss Finley.
The threat of castration runs through the piece, and Greif heightens the repeated references by staging a provocative show-opener that explicitly recreates the emasculation of a hapless black man. By bookending the play with castrations, foreshadowing the play’s climax (which is already foreshadowed enough by the playwright), Greif has, in a sense, emasculated the play.
The direction consistently illustrates rather than enhancing the text, with back-story periodically acted out upstage, above the playing-space. Even the tech work is a little off. The stark, white abstract set doesn’t match the on-the-nose realism of the acting and direction, and it’s got this useless and barely-used stream of water onstage, which adds nothing to the production. Even the costumes are problematic, with the Princess teetering on stiletto-heeled mules that distract each time she makes her way across the stage.
There aren’t too many likable characters here. The self-proclaimed “monsters,” Alexandra del Lago (modeled after Tallulah Bankhead) and Chance Wayne, her loser of a boy-toy, are center stage. But Pamela Payton-Wright and Patrick Wilson aren’t quite up to the task. Neither is enough of a charismatic presence to engage or enthrall. In this production, the strongest portrayals are in the big old racist, Boss Finley — grandly played by veteran actor M. Emmett Walsh — and his bone-headed, buzz-cut son, a menacing thug hellbent on exacting revenge on Chance Wayne for destroying the life and fertility of his sister.
There are moments of beauty or delicacy in this production, but by and large, this “Bird” doesn’t fly. This surely isn’t what Michael Greif will be remembered for, but in his five years at the Playhouse, he certainly left an indelible mark on San Diego theater.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.