Lonely Hearts Club

Lonely Hearts Club

“A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” is not one of Tennessee Williams’ top-drawer plays. But even as a middle-drawer work, it’s got a marvelous richness and poignancy to spare, thanks in no small part to a sturdy cast, led by the splendid Kristine Nielsen, nominated for a Best Actress Tony for the farcical “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

Creve Coeur, which means “broken heart” in French, refers to a heart-shaped lake near St. Louis. On a sunny Sunday in June, 1937, it is where a plump, middle-aged German gal named Bodey (Nielsen) intends to take her brother and her roommate, Dorothea, on a little picnic to escape their cramped efficiency apartment (set designer Harry Feiner must have gone wild at flea markets to assemble the dumpy, garish period decor) and the oppressive summer heat. And perhaps stir up a romance.

Bodey’s simple plan is doomed from the get-go. Dorothea is consumed waiting for a phone call from a dashing gentleman friend, the principal at the high school where she teaches civics. She wants no part of Bodey’s scheme, being not the least bit attracted to the beer-swilling, cigar-chomping brother.

“I’m sorry, but the life I design for myself is not along those lines,” Dorothea sniffs. “What I must have and finally do have is an affair of the heart, two hearts, a true consummated romance — yes consummated, I’m not ashamed!” Little does she know there’s an item in the Sunday paper that will shatter those romantic dreams, and Bodey is doing her darnedest to conceal it.

Think of Dorothea as a cousin to Blanche from “Streetcar.” She’s from the Deep South and has the lilting accent to prove it, her health is fragile, her beauty is fading fast, she has delusions of grandeur and has rotten luck with members of the opposite sex. Jean Lichty infuses Dorothea with a deft mix of fragility and fortitude.

The plot, centering on a lady pinning her future on the whims of a dubious gentleman caller, bears more than a passing resemblance to “The Glass Menagerie.”

When Dorothea’s smug teaching colleague, Helena (the excellent Annette O’Toole, in full-on supercilious mode), appears uninvited to discuss an urgent business proposition, the household is thrown into disarray. Complicating matters further is a visit by their needy upstairs neighbor, Miss Gluck, distraught over the death of her mother.

Williams has leavened the sadness with sly touches of levity. When describing her encounter with the butcher at the Piggly-Wiggly, where she was buying chicken to fry up for the picnic, Bodey repeatedly says, with a salacious undertone, “he lets me feel the meat.” The butcher’s name is Mr. Butts.

There are passages where, under the direction of the legendary Austin Pendleton, who may be the hardest working septuagenarian in New York theater, the play veers too firmly into comic territory. Naturally, the gifted Nielsen plays up the laughs. Another quibble is that the role of Miss Gluck is underwritten, and as portrayed by Polly McKie it registers as one-note. And it’s an uncomfortably shrill note indeed.

As a play from Williams’ later life (1979), familiar motifs from previous works abound: the friction between social classes, the shame of living on the wrong side of town, the sting of failed romance, the importance of keeping up appearances, the battle for belonging, and the will to persevere in the face of adversity.

Or, as Dorothea dispassionately proclaims not long before the final curtain of this underrated, lyrical tragicomedy, “We must pull ourselves together and go on.”

A LOVELY SUNDAY FOR CREVE COEUR | La Femme Theatre Productions | Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St. | Through Oct. 21: Wed.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $65-$85 at lafemmetheatreproductions.org | One hr., 40 mins., no intermission