Terry Teachout is the powerful theater critic for the Wall Street Journal. His reviews often can make or break a new show, boosting ticket sales or sending down the final curtain.
Most readers are not aware Teachout is also an acclaimed playwright and director, and this weekend, critics from around the region will take their first look at his latest work.
Teachout’s second play, “Billy and Me,” inspired by the fiery relationship between Tennessee Williams and William Inge, will receive its world premiere at Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach. He describes the play as “a work of fiction based on fact.”
Dramaworks artistic director William Hayes suggested the topic during a production meeting 18 months ago for the Dramaworks production of the critic’s first play, “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” Hayes asked Teachout if he thought “there’s a play there.”
“I’m not sure if I jumped up and down in the chair,” Teachout recalled, but he went to work and more than 100 numbered drafts later, he had a play.
In “Billy and Me,” Teachout imagines their complex relationship. While their contemporaries suspected some sort of sexual involvement, neither Williams nor Inge ever addressed the subject directly.
“They were two men who were similar in so many ways: They were both important American playwrights, both gay, both alcoholics, both self-destructive. The different arcs of their lives were not in sync,” he explained. “Let’s just say ‘Billy and Me’ takes a position on this question.”
Teachout added, “Because neither of them was forthcoming about the nature of their friendship, that gave me the imaginative elbow room I needed to write a play. Otherwise, I would just write a biography. That’s what makes the creative juices flow… when there are unanswered questions.”
Williams, portrayed by Nicholas Richberg, narrates the story with Tom Wahl creating the role of Inge. The first act takes place in a bar in Chicago on December 31, 1944, immediately after a pre-Broadway tryout of Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” the play Inge said inspired him to become a playwright. Act II takes place almost 15 years later in Inge’s Manhattan apartment, a few hours after the Broadway premiere of his first flop, “A Loss of Roses.”
“It’s a play about love, jealousy, and—not to put it too pompously— destiny,” said Teachout. “An artist is a person who can’t do anything else with his life. Writing is his fate: it’s that or nothing. But he can’t become an artist until he accepts that fate and acknowledges his true nature.”
Will Teachout be on the lookout for the first reviews? The answer is a definitive “No.”
“I don’t read them and that’s the same advice I give to everybody in the business,” he said. “They’re not written for you. They’re written for audiences.”
You can check SFGN.com for our review of this exciting new work.
Palm Beach Dramaworks presents the world premiere production of Terry Teachout’s “Billy and Me,” Dec. 8 – 31 at the Don & Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. Tickets are $75 at PalmBeachDramaworks.org.