SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER

Category: Suddenly Last Summer Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: April 19, 1999 | Publication: Variety | Author: MATT WOLF
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(DRAMA REVIVAL; COMEDY THEATER; 783 SEATS; 27.50 ($ 44.50)TOP)

LONDON An Yvonne Arnaud Theater (Guildford) presentation by Warehouse Prods. with Associated Capital Theaters of a play in one act by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Sean Mathias. Sets and costumes, Tim Hatley; lighting, Mark Henderson; music, Jason Carr; sound, John A. Leonard for Aura Sound Design Ltd. Opened, reviewed April 14, 1999. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.

Mrs. Venable .... Sheila Gish

Catharine .... Rachel Weisz

Mrs. Holly .... Julia Swift

George .... Tim Matthews

Sister Felicity .... Patricia Boyer

Miss Foxhill .... Johanna Kirby

Doctor Cukrowicz .... Gerard Butler

Suddenly Last Summer" begins with a thunderclap and ends with a piercing scream, but the real shock is that Sean Mathias' new production of the baroquely moving 1958 Tennessee Williams one-act should be so affectively becalmed, even inert. On past evidence, Mathias would seem the ideal director for a fevered hothouse of a play that isn't emotionally far removed from the febrile environment of Jean Cocteau's "Les Parents Terribles" (known on Broadway as "Indiscretions"), with which the same director launched his trans-Atlantic career. But beginning with Tim Hatley's wildly misconceived set, this is one of those disconcerting evenings in which virtually everything goes awry. British critics may react more kindly in belated atonement for their unjust maligning of Mathias' continually arresting National Theater "Antony and Cleopatra" last fall, but Americans stand forewarned: Williams at his most ripe has rarely seemed less atmospheric.

It's hard to imagine, for instance, how so gifted a talent as Hatley (whose shimmering design for the Shakespeare tragedy went almost totally ignored) could have sanctioned the bizarre set that turns Williams' New Orleans jungle garden into a blanched-out parody of Rousseau. While John A. Leonard's busy sound design fills the theater with ambient squawks and squeals that the doomed Mrs. Venable (Sheila Gish) will herself end up grimly parroting, the set forces the actors into a parade of center-stage posturing at total odds with the shadowy, nervy intensity of Williams' fearsome tale.

At heart, the play is a series of turns for two women, starting with a quintessentially Williams-esque monstre sacre, Mrs. Venable, and moving on to her young niece by marriage, Catharine (Rachel Weisz), who must voice the awful facts concerning the death of Mrs. Venable's son that this mother of the late "poet" can't bring herself to confront.

So desperate is she to squelch any firsthand account of her son's demise that Mrs. Venable is willing to bribe a local doctor (Gerard Butler) to perform a lobotomy on Catharine. The intention: to stop the so-called "babbling" wherein, of course, the real truth of Sebastian's depraved life lies.

Mrs. Venable speaks of her son as a "creator" and Catharine as a "destroyer," though it's characteristic of the self-delusion that typifies Williams' women that she is blind to her own destructive love for her child. The play may be lesser Williams --- essentially, it's as "thin and fine" as the spider's web Mrs. Venable refers to late on --- but it's potentially mightily disturbing as well, not least in the implicit connections it offers up to its author's own, pained life.

Filmed by Richard Eyre for the BBC Performance series in 1992, the text retained a potency as seductive as it was scary, especially as acted in career-defining performances by Maggie Smith and Natasha Richardson, as Mrs. Venable and Catharine. (Even Rob Lowe, playing the doctor, was good.) But you don't have to have seen the previous Katharine Hepburn-Elizabeth Taylor film (which I haven't) to be dismayed this time around by the collective phoniness of a cast --- Weisz largely excepted --- who display no demonstrable connection to the play's location, accent, or, most damagingly, pathos.

There was something far more truly Williams-esque about Gish's terrific maternal obsessive in "Parents Terribles" than there is to her studied and glacial work here, which gets the surface detail right --- Mrs. Venable's twisted mouth, the result of a stroke --- but entirely bypasses the character's suppurating heart.

With Butler's doctor a golden-haired mannequin, there's little for Mrs. Venable and Catharine to fight over besides their memories, which in turn gives Weisz next to nothing to act opposite during a lengthy closing soliloquy that almost rivals Hickey's "Iceman Cometh" confessional in its brute force.

In truth, this rising young actress (she won a London critics' award for Mathias' "Design for Living" several years back) somewhat oversells Catharine's eventual revelation, and there are odd moments when she, too, lets the accent slip. But as one watches her eerily possessed by the hellish ending that concluded the life of Mrs. Venable's none too heaven-sent son, one suddenly glimpses the evening that might have been rather than the lost "Summer" that is.