Philip Dawkins has some nerve! He knows that Tennessee Williams met William Inge in 1944 when the latter came to interview the former for the St. Louis Star-Times some months before the Chicago opening of The Glass Menagerie. So Dawkins takes the liberty to write The Gentleman Caller, which is ostensibly about that first and then a subsequent meeting. He composes it, however, with, he’s been quoted as saying, “a healthy dose of conjecture.”
“A healthy dose of conjecture”?! I’ll say it is. The conjecture is enough of a dose for an audience member to gag on—and more than enough to giggle on, too. To illustrate the madcap point, I’ll only cite one example in what is a ludicrously presumptuous two-act play.
Within 10 or so minutes of meeting Williams (Juan Francisco Villa), Inge (Daniel K. Isaac, currently in Showtime’s Billions) pulls out a photograph of the still young and not yet famous interviewee that he plans to run with the interview. Inge asks Williams to autograph the photograph. He says it’s intended for a nephew.
Suspecting Inge wants the autograph for himself, Williams writes—on the front of the photo, not on the back, as this Inge requests for reproduction purposes—“Dear boy, you’re a hot piece of ass. Regards, Tennessee Williams.”
Whereupon Inge pounces on Williams, unbuckles his trousers and pulls them down—“very truck-stop,” Dawkins indicates in his stage direction. Then Inge begins undoing his own trousers without having lowered Williams’ boxers, something Dawkins also calls for in his stage direction. Congrats to Tony Speciale for being wise enough not to follow those instructions.
Allowing Inge’s invasive action to go this far—because this Williams is based on Williams’ established reputation for promiscuity, Williams does put an end to things there. Yes, that chutzpah-proud conjecture concludes. But others follow.
Okay, there’s no arguing that Williams and Inge became friends. Neither is it wrong suspecting they might have had a sexual relationship, although nowhere is it confirmed. In Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, John Lahr’s comprehensive biography, he confirms the friendship but mentions no evidence that it went further. (Actually, Lahr and anyone knowing about Williams might speculate that in any Williams/Inge clinch, it would have been Williams who made the initial moves, Inge being the repressed, suicidal figure he was.)
There’s also no arguing that without Williams we might not have Inge. That’s in both the literal and figurative sense, since it is also fact that at around this time Williams read Inge’s Farther Off From Heaven, admired it, and sent it to agent Audrey Wood, who also liked it and so added Inge to her roster.
That’s the literal sense, but the figurative sense is that Williams’ writing—his themes, his attitudes—greatly influenced Inge. Think only of Picnic, in which a masculine man throws women into heated response, not unlike Stanley Kowalski’s effect in A Streetcar Named Desire. During The Gentleman Caller Inge does ruminate about a Picnic-like plot. (Williams devotees will recognize Dawkins’ title as an early Glass Menagerie title.)
It’s in the Dawkins second act that Williams announces, after much delaying, that he’s forwarded Farther Off From Heaven to Wood. And this is only after Williams and Inge do more of the extended pussyfooting in which they’d earlier indulged. Truth is that this Williams, depicted as almost cruelly playful, and this Inge, shown to be timid and hypersensitive, grab each other several times in passionate embraces. Really? Really?
All the unlikely cat-and-mouse behavior—Williams the cat, Inge the mouse—is additionally undercut by the odd casting. Villa does bear a strong resemblance to Williams, although he portrays the playwright as unusually confident and without the slightly distrait air the playwright so often exhibited.
On the other hand, Isaac is a slim, academic Inge, shorter that Villa and therefore much shorter than Inge, who towered over Williams. Apparently, the situation has something to do with Speciale and the producers liking the idea of non-traditional casting as another aspect of the play’s “outsiders” motif. An odd way to go about things, it would seem.
The Gentleman Caller take place on an imposing Sara C. Walsh set that may be the production’s most memorable facet. A series of columns of various heights and constructed of what are obviously meant to be script pages are topped by lamps of different shapes and shades. Before them sits not much more than a couch, which turns into a convertible bed, for the occasional amorous entanglements.
In homage to Williams, Dawkins frames The Gentleman Caller as a memory play. William recalls the two meetings much as Tom—Williams’ autobiographical self—recalls the melancholy Glass Menagerie action. Speaking at the conclusion, this amiable Williams provides perhaps Dawkins’ most moving (only moving?) moments.
He describes the ends of the Williams and Inge lives: both men having passed their successes by some years, one dying whole choking on a bottle top (the incorrect common belief about Williams’ demise) and the other by his own hand.
So much for fame and artistry: two deaths left on this occasion for one later playwright to feel free about taking unwarranted liberties with the men’s lives. It doesn’t seem fair, does it?
The Gentleman Caller opened May 10, 2018, at the Cherry Lane Theatre and runs through May 26. Tickets and information: abingdon.org