Five by Tenn Raises Tennessee Williams' Gems Up to the Light, Starting Oct. 19 at Manhattan Theatre Club

News   Five by Tenn Raises Tennessee Williams' Gems Up to the Light, Starting Oct. 19 at Manhattan Theatre Club Five by Tenn, a collection of five short works by the late Tennessee Williams, begins Off-Broadway performances under the direction of longtime Williams advocate Michael Kahn Oct. 19.
Kathleen Chalfant in Five by Tenn
Kathleen Chalfant in Five by Tenn Photo by Richard Termine

Manhattan Theatre Club patrons learned several weeks ago that would get an extra helping of Tennessee Williams this fall with the addition of a fifth one-act in an evening first announced as Four by Tenn on MTC's Stage II. It's now Five by Tenn. Opening is Nov. 11.

The recently announced title is the world premiere, The Fat Man's Wife. Additionally, Summer at the Lake is the new title of the previously announced piece once called Escape.

The slate, seen in one sitting, features Robert Sella (Side Man, Cabaret, the national tour of Angels in America), David Rasche (MTC's Last Dance, Broadway's Getting and Spending, Speed-the-Plow), Kathleen Chalfant (Wit, Angels in America), Penny Fuller (Applause, The Dinner Party), Jeremy Lawrence, Cameron Folmar, Hunter Gimore and Myk Watford.

Getting its world premiere at MTC is Adam and Eve on a Ferry and The Fat Man's Wife. New York premieres are Summer at the Lake (the new title of Escape) and Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens.... A play called I Can't Imagine Tomorrow, seen in a TV production and Off Broadway, is also on the schedule.

Jeremy Lawrence appears between plays as The Writer, a figure based on Williams' writings. Williams is the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (also known for his compelling and sensual short stories) who penned The Glass Menagerie, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, Camino Real, Orpheus Descending and more.

According to MTC, "Four of the five one acts in Five by Tenn were found several years ago by scholars Nick Moschovakis and David Roessel in Austin while doing research for an edition of Williams' collected poems. Moschovakis and Roessel brought the plays, along with a dozen others, to director Michael Kahn's attention, and Kahn found Summer at the Lake, And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens, The Fat Man's Wife and Adam and Eve on a Ferry especially stageworthy. Presented with the Williams gem, I Can't Imagine Tomorrow, they comprise Five by Tenn."

Here's a breakdown of the collection:

  • Summer at the Lake, billed as a precursor to the mother/son relationship depicted in Williams' breakthrough play, The Glass Menagerie, will feature Kathleen Chalfant (Anna), Cameron Folmar (Donald Fenway) and Penny Fuller (Mrs. Fenway).
  • And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens, Williams' only openly gay-themed play, is about an aging drag queen confronting her loneliness, and will feature Myk Watford (Karl), Cameron Folmar (Candy Delaney), Hunter Gilmore (Alvin Krenning) and Robert Sella (Jerry Johnson).
  • The Fat Man's Wife, in which a woman is forced to choose between her philandering husband and the promise of love from an idealistic younger man. The play features Kathleen Chalfant (Vera Cartwright), David Rasche (Josie Cartwright) and Robert Sella (Dennis Merriweather).
  • Adam and Eve on a Ferry, in which an anxious American woman's obsession with a near-sexual encounter brings her to D.H. Lawrence's door. Featured are Kathleen Chalfant (Frieda), Penny Fuller (Visitor) and David Rasche (Lawrence).
  • I Can't Imagine Tomorrow, a stark, spare piece featuring Kathleen Chalfant (One) and David Rasche (Two), depicts a middle-aged man and woman trying to bridge the gap of isolation and pain. Set design is by James Noone, costume design is by Catherine Zuber, lighting design is by Howell Binkley. Sound design is by Scott Killian. Original music is by Adam Wernick.

    The performance schedule for Five by Tenn is Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30 PM, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 PM. Tickets are $48 and can be reserved by calling CityTix at (212) 581-1212.

    Here's Williams' bio, provided by MTC and, one guesses, the author's estate: "Born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi in 1911, Williams' first essay, "Can a Wife Be a Good Sport?," was published in Smart Set magazine when he was only 16. Influenced by Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen, Williams began writing plays; in 1935 his play, Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay! was produced by the Memphis Garden Players. Several more of Williams' plays were produced in St. Louis the following year and in 1937 Williams transferred to the University of Iowa, where he enrolled in E.P. Conkle's and E.C. Mabie's famous playwriting class. That same year his sister underwent a prefrontal lobotomy for her schizophrenic episodes and was later placed in a sanatorium; this incident would haunt Williams the rest of his life. In 1938 inspired by a newspaper article that described rioting and prisoner torture in a Philadelphia County prison, Williams wrote his fourth full-length play: Not About Nightingales. At the end of 1938 Williams moved to the French Quarter section of New Orleans. This would prove to be a decisive move in his literary career and, indeed, his life. In the Vieux Carre in a rooming house at 722 Toulouse Street, Williams underwent a personal and artistic transformation from "Tom" to "Tennessee," a change he would chronicle decades later in a play, Vieux Carre, first produced in 1977. After the 1940 opening of his Battle of Angels in Boston (later reworked as Orpheus Descending), Williams tried his hand in Hollywood writing a screenplay for Lana Turner; however, Williams would not enjoy critical success for several years. A signal of things to come, Williams' The Glass Menagerie (1945) was followed by the 1947 Broadway opening of A Streetcar Named Desire, which was awarded, among others, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Success followed upon success with Summer and Smoke (1948), The Rose Tattoo (1951), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955, Pulitzer Prize), Orpheus Descending (1957), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959) and Night of the Iguana (1961). Williams' place in the American theatre was evident as early as 1947, with the immense Broadway success of A Streetcar Named Desire. Since that time, his vision has dominated the American theatrical landscape, immortalized in great performances on stage and film by some of the world's greatest actors. With the rediscovery and premiere of Tennessee Williams' unproduced 1938 play, Not About Nightingales, audiences and scholars gain a valuable new perspective into Williams' artistic development, a fresh glimpse into the influences that shaped him into America's greatest playwright. Not About Nightingales received Tony, Outer Critics Circle Award and a Drama Desk Award nomination as Best Play for 1999. Having garnered two Pulitzer Prizes, four New York Critics Circle awards, the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature and countless others, Williams died in 1983 at the age of 71, leaving behind living shadows of himself: characters with immortality that continue to entertain, enlighten and question."

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    Michael Kahn, the respected artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC, similarly staged a clutch of Williams' short plays in a slate called Five by Tenn at The Kennedy Center's Terrace Theatre April 21-May 9, 2004. The works were produced by The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC. Among the cast were Folmar, Watford and Chalfant.

    The five one-acts seen in DC were: These Are the Stairs You Got to Watch, Escape ("a compelling work tinged with a sense of loss and hopelessness that foreshadows the mother-and-son relationship found in The Glass Menagerie"), And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens... ("Williams' only openly gay-themed play follows the story of a young, burnt-out man in his 30s living in New Orleans' French Quarter"), The Municipal Abattoir and I Can't Imagine Tomorrow ("a captivating drama, the play explores the friendship between a middle-aged man and woman who are both paralyzed by their individual pain").

    Michael Kahn previously oversaw an Off-Broadway staging of Williams' one-acts under the title Ten by Tennessee.

    For more information, visit www.manhattantheatreclub.com.