Tennessee’s More Challenging Terrain

Austin Pendleton directs Tennessee Williams’ “The Two-Character Play,” at Duo Multicultural Arts Center in the East Village through July 16. | COURTESY: AUSTIN PENDLETON

Austin Pendleton is a man of many reputations: renowned actor of stage and screen, theater director, teacher, and artistic director of the now-defunct Circle Repertory Company.

His current project is a revival of Tennessee Williams’ late work “The Two-Character Play,” produced by Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company. The collaboration may be fortuitous. Pendleton has previously directed prominent productions of several Williams works including “Vieux Carré,” “Orpheus Descending,” “Suddenly Last Summer,” and “Small Craft Warnings.” And, last season, Playhouse Creatures presented a successful double bill of the late Williams one-acts “A Recluse and His Guest” and “The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde.”

Pendleton’s passion for Williams stretches back to his earliest days in the theater.

Austin Pendleton, Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company collaborate on “The Two-Character Play”

“My first encounter with a Tennessee Williams play became the first time I knew there was such a thing as a great playwright,” Pendleton said. “When I was 14, I saw a good community theater production of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ in my hometown in Ohio. I’d had no idea before that that you could get that involved with a character in a play. I didn’t know you could go to the theater and actually worry about somebody. The first time I directed a play as an adult, I directed my mother [professional actress Frances Manchester Pendleton] in a production of ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ The characters haunted me for months. Williams writes about people we would never imagine would have impact on us, but they do. Tennessee Williams does not write everyman characters. He writes these strange people but the whole world embraces them.”

“The Two-Character Play” was written during a time of tumultuous transition for Williams. During the 1960s he plunged into radical experimentation, a transformation that drove both critics and audiences away. Many of these last works have been revived in recent years to great acclaim.

“The Two-Character Play” is an existential ordeal in the manner of Beckett. A brother-sister acting team, who may be insane and have been abandoned by the rest of their company, present a play within a play. The work is full of sadness and alienation and ultimately may be more rooted in reality than his original audiences could have known or appreciated.

Williams first presented an early version of the play in London in 1967. He continued to work on it, and presented a re-written version called “Out Cry” in Chicago in 1971, finally bringing it to Broadway in 1973. That production closed after 12 performances. It took the public and the critical community decades to catch up with Williams’ vision. There have been numerous critically acclaimed productions over the past several years.

“It’s one of his most personal plays,” Pendleton said. “He was inordinately fond of it. I’d acted in a 1982 production, the last one during his lifetime, and it got good reviews. When it came time for me to direct the current production, I thought I’d remember some of the things the previous director Tom Brennan had said [about the play’s meaning], but I couldn’t remember a thing. Any interpretation you come up with, you come up with in the moment when you’re doing it. You’re starting all over again.”

The director appears to have found a key, at least for this production.

“I knew Tennessee a bit and about his life,” Pendleton noted. “He was, especially in his last years, in a state of perpetual crisis. He carried his feelings about his sister around with him in his work all those years, and it came out in some of his greatest characters — Blanche, Laura. Critics began to decide it wasn’t worth watching him do this any more and it hit him hard. ‘The Two-Character Play’ seems torn out of those feelings. It takes place in this frozen country, everybody’s walked out. The characters speak in code to each other. It’s haunting and disturbing and funny like all of his plays.”

THE TWO-CHARACTER PLAY | Duo Multicultural Arts Center, 62 E. Fourth St., btwn. Bowery & Second Ave. | Jul. 6-8, 12-15 at 8 p.m.; Jul. 8 & 15 at 5 p.m.; Jul. 9 & 16 at 3 p.m. | $35-$49; $15 for student at playhousecreatures.org