Sunday, April 14, 2019

"The Gentleman Caller"

The Gentleman Caller
Philip Dawkins

Brennan Pickman-Thoon & Adam Niemann
“I don’t like interviewers for the very reason they remind me of what I once said,” he says in his syrupy, Southern flow of clever quips.  But a favorable interview is very much what young, boy-looking Tom Williams (“Tennessee for short”) is hoping to receive from the awkward, fumbling, but rather cute drama critic of the St. Louis Star-Times as Tennessee arrives at the reporter’s apartment in early November, 1944.  Tennessee has already sent the critic a carbon copy of his play soon to open in Chicago – one with a working title of The Gentlemen Caller – and hopes to get needed, positive press from this afternoon visit.  But William (Bill) Inge has not actually read the play; seems more intent on pouring himself another drink than in asking another question; and within a few minutes liquors himself into enough courage to try to rape the flirty, flattered, but not-quite-ready-to-go-that-far Tennessee.

Brennan Pickman-Thoon & Adam Niemann
And thus opens Philip Dawkins’ own The Gentleman Caller in which he imagines two meetings over two months time between one young playwright whose re-titled The Glass Menagerie is about to make him the new darling of the theatre world and a non-confident critic who is on a desperate quest to become a playwright himself.  The repartee between the two is hilarious and titillating to observe – driven in great part by the non-stop, cunningly constructed comebacks of Tennessee to anything the slower-responding Bill tries to say in attempted sentences that seem never to reach completion.  New Conservatory Theatre Center presents the regional premiere of this 2018 play in a production bursting with talent in every regard but particularly in the tense, teasing, and testy direction that Arturo Catricala lends the two actors who excel in capturing personalities that bump and grind along until they finally gel into a relationship of respect and friendship (and maybe even love).

Tennessee is the story’s narrator, quickly establishing an easy-going, wink-wink manner with the near-by audience in the intimate setting of NCTC’s Walker Theatre.  Brennan Pickman-Thoon quickly has us in the palms of his flighty hands with his delicious, hypnotic drawl that is of a Shakespearean quality in a Southern sort of way – a combination of vocal ebbs and flows that elevate that region’s oft-mimicked, oft-mocked accent to a level surprisingly beautiful and mesmerizing (with special kudos going to Melinda Marks for her dialect coaching). 

 Adam Niemann & Brennan Pickman-Thoon
But he also brings a cutting edge to the acutely sharp, ever-catchy script that Philip Dawkins provides Tennessee.  When Bill Inge at one point tells Tennessee, “You’re too bitch for me,” the latter shoots back, “That’s like the pot calling the kettle Blanche,” one of several references to plays he has written or will someday write.  In one of the many times his Tennessee makes a side remark to us as audience in reference to something he or Bill has said, he tells us that we will not see Bill’s barking dog Lulabelle running about on the stage because “you should never work with children and animals ... or Bette Davis ... who is both.”  Brennan Pickman-Thoon alone is worth the price of the ticket in order to revel in his delightfully wicked, incredibly insightful interpretation of the early, wonderfully raw version of this later giant of American theatre.

The thirty-three-year-old Tennessee before us is a slight-of-build, somewhat dramatic diva with just enough hip swish to hint at but never enough to scream of his sexual orientation.  In contrast, the slightly younger Bill is rather ancient-appearing as he lumbers, almost stumbles his way around the room, stopping and starting both his physical approaches toward Tennessee and his broken conversations with abruptness.  His emotional expressions go from near nil to full, volcanic explosions in a matter of seconds, with little warning or reason why.  He is a young man caught in a time and a location when being open – even to himself – of his desires for other men is more than he can bear acknowledging openly, leading to desires pent up that suddenly explode in exaggerated passions and then quickly retreat in horror and shame. 

Adam Niemann is outstanding in his capturing the difficulty of facing one’s sexual orientation in a world that would be eager to crucify you in headlines and ruin you forever once the word got out.  He is even better in showing us a playwright-in-the-making who hesitantly comes to the altar of his newfound god, Tennessee, hoping for his blessing but expecting his rejection.  But he is at his best in Act Two when Philip Dawkins awards him a monologue about a life-shaping incident as a boy that Adam Niemann delivers in a gripping, near-monotone fashion, yet one full of deeply hidden emotion that leaves the audience (and even Tennessee) barely breathing during its telling.

During the two meetings of Tennessee and Bill – the earlier in St. Louis and the latter in Chicago after the opening night of The Glass Menagerie – Philip Dawkins leads the two protagonists through topics that allow Tennessee to mentor a reluctant Bill bit by bit through both wit and wisdom what it means to “engage your imagination, the most endangered of American qualities.”  When they meet, Bill both admires and is skeptical of a profession where a person like Tennessee “force[s] the audience into your stories and do what you want them to do.”  While Inge believes that Williams is “the maker of dreams,” Tennessee denies any lofty desire to “change the world” as a playwright, quipping, “I just want to live a life of epic fornifications.”  But writing for Tennessee is clearly his purpose in life and one he is trying to help the young, untested William Inge to understand is a reason to keep on living, even when feeling alone and miserable.  For Tennessee, writing is the end-all, telling Bill, “What is point of being loved for my writing if I can love through my writing.”

Brennan Pickman-Thoon & Adam Niemann
The two meetings also afford a sexually intense dance to occur where Tennessee is tempting and wanting and where Bill sometimes longingly wants and other times rushes to escape.  In a scene involving Bill with a pair of binoculars, a lesbian couple across the alley way in front of an open-curtained window, and a Tennessee whose hands and toes probe ever downward over Bill’s torso as Bill describes between his hot panting what he sees going on between the love-making women – in that one scene Arturo Catricala directs one of the most hotly erotic and beautifully executed scenes I have ever witnessed in live theatre.  For many in the audience, that scene was probably the one worth the price of the ticket!

With walls papered in the scripts of Tennessee Williams’ plays, Kevin Landesman has created the rooms of an apartment and a hotel that have a cozy, intimate feel and that offer the desired safety for the 1944 conversations (and more) between these two men.  The lighting design of Chris Lundahl casts telling, shadowed patterns on the floor to underline shifts in the story’s mood as well as effectively using wall sconces and focused spots to shift those moods.  Kalon Thibodeaux’s sound design, among other gems, ensures a record always sticks at precisely the correct moments for the best of humor.  The costumes of Keri Fitch broadcast the outwardly straight and inwardly straight-laced nature of William Inge while doing just the opposite about both natures of Tennessee Williams. 

Philip Dawkins has taken an actual relationship between two of America’s greatest, twentieth-century playwrights – a known friendship and a rumored romantic attraction – and created a fascinating, enlightening, and totally entertaining accounting of two, fictionalized encounters behind closed doors whose walls tell no secrets.  In the brilliant hands of this director, these two actors, and this creative team, New Conservatory Theatre Center’s staging of The Gentleman Caller is two hours where every minute matches our narrator’s Second Act opening description: “There is a sense all around of something about to happen.”

Rating: 5 E

The Gentleman Caller continues through May 5, 2019 in the Walker Theatre of of the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema

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