“Your sister and you are insane!” So reads a telegram left by a theatre’s crew to its two leading actors, Clare (Amanda Plummer) and Felice (Brad Dourif). Abandoned in a theatre with no discernible exit, the increasingly unstable siblings decide to perform Felice’s “The Two Character Play” for what we are told is a quickly dwindling audience. Set in a forsaken house with no electricity in the small Southern town of New Bethesda, Felice’s play-within-a-play follows a reclusive pair of siblings who have not left the family home since their father shot their mother and then himself months (possibly years) before. First produced in 1975, this late Tennessee Williams piece presents a play populated by damaged Southern characters caught in their own illusory pasts, embedded within a nihilistic exploration of the confining space of the stage. This doubling makes it hard for audiences and readers alike to distinguish between the two pairs of siblings. The confusion stems not only from Felice’s decision to name his characters after himself and Clare, but from the slow discovery that Felice’s play may indeed be autobiographical, blurring any discernible line between performers and characters.
When Williams first wrote the play after close to a decade of critical and box office misfires, it seemed an attempt at both reclaiming and renouncing the timbre and motifs of his earlier successes through a decidedly refracted lens. In its first major revival in New York, the New World Stages production of The Two Character Play presents a strong argument for the value and continuity of the playwright’s later output, helpfully shedding light on his recurring themes and characters.
In their dual roles, Plummer and Dourif embodied both the early poetic tragedies that garnered Williams acclaim in the 1940s and ’50s and the more formally experimental (and rarely performed) works of his late career. Both actors projected the frayed vulnerability of the play-within-a-play siblings, as well as the burgeoning violent insanity of the trapped actors who portray them. In performing the New Bethesda siblings (the play-within-the-play), they took on sweet Southern drawls that emphasized the very sunny, if stunted, sensibility of these characters: he, a sensitive poet, she, a sheltered girl. Just as the structure of The Two Character Play shuttles between the tragedy of the orphaned siblings and the nihilistic farce of the trapped actors, Plummer’s voice went from a sweet, simpering Southern drawl to an imposing, gravel-voiced yell in a matter of seconds, growing quickly agitated whenever Felice pushed Clare to deal with the dreaded reality that surrounds them in both incarnations. Dourif carefully walked a similar tightrope, shifting from the dandyism of the New Bethesda Felice to the volatile menace of Felice-the-actor. As the latter, Dourif’s twitchy physicality was used to full effect as Felice grew increasingly aggressive with Clare’s refusal to play her part as written (“I told you I would not perform again in ‘The Two Character Play’ until you had cut it,” she warns him early on), and her decision to make those necessary cuts herself.
Even with a constantly changing script courtesy of Clare’s whims, both actors explicitly located Felice’s “The Two Character Play” within the tradition of Williams plays that get regular star-studded revivals on the Great White Way. Indeed, days before Plummer and Dourif’s twice-extended limited run ended, a new revival of The Glass Menagerie, headlined by Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto, began previews a couple of blocks down the street. That early play was particularly present in this production of The Two Character Play, anchoring the abstract conceit of two actors in search of an audience in the lilting language of Williams’s Southern tragedies. Not only did the scenic design—beams and skeletal structures suggesting a half-assembled stage and denoting an abandoned rickety house—seem evocative of Jo Mielziner’s original designs for the Wingfield tenement apartment, but Plummer’s casting quite explicitly recalled The Glass...