In his new play “Billy and Me,” receiving its world premiere this month at Palm Beach Dramaworks, playwright—and Wall Street Journal theater critic—Terry Teachout supposes what might have transpired during two meetings of famed playwrights Tennessee Williams and William Inge.
Teachout notes in the program that the play is “a work of fiction, freely based on fact” and Williams reminds the audience more than once that while he often drinks to forget, “in memory, everything is true.”
The two masters—one still universally revered, the other largely forgotten—certainly knew each other, but neither said much about any personal relationship to speak of. They were both gay, both alcoholics, both self-destructive and, at the urging of Palm Beach Dramaworks artistic director William Hayes nearly two years ago, Teachout set out to answer any lingering questions about their relationship.
The result is a two-hour play that does, at times, create a complicated and nuanced portrait of the men and their supposed relationship in two acts:
The first is set in a Chicago gay bar, where Williams (Nicholas Richberg) has summoned the St. Louis critic Inge (Tom Wahl) to meet on New Year’s Eve after a performance of “The Glass Menagerie” in a pre-Broadway tryout. Williams alternately obsesses unceasingly about the sloppy performance of a drunk star and encourages Inge to embrace his homosexuality.
Fast forward 15 years to Inge’s Manhattan apartment. It turns out Inge was inspired to write after that initial encounter. He’s had four big hits, but his latest play is deemed a flop by the critics. Williams conveniently shows up to console Inge and a heated argument erupts pushing Inge to attempt suicide, downing an entire bottle of pills.
What do we learn from either episode? Well, they were both tortured artists with the usual “mommy” issues that society blamed at the time when sensitive boys “turned” gay. They both struggled to remain at the top of their field when success is defined by their latest creation. There’s even the hint of a sexual encounter, when largely throughout the play they display no sexual tension, let alone chemistry.
The problem is it takes two hours to make these very predictable discoveries. Teachout relies on clichéd theatrical devices, setting up the work as a memory play introduced by an aged Williams and interrupting throughout as the action stops and Williams breaks the fourth wall to elaborate on his feelings to the audience.
The first act plods along, despite the best efforts of director Hayes, Richberg and Wahl, as Teachout devotes nearly 45 minutes setting up his premise. Williams talks a lot, seemingly reciting his own Wikipedia entry for the benefit of the audience, and Inge shrugs along before the story even begins to get interesting. The audience seemed to agree, with many of the older patrons deserting at intermission. The second act is better, with a quicker pace, more emotional peaks and valleys, and, well, that melodramatic attempt at suicide.
Carbonell Award-winners Richberg and Wahl give valiant, award-worthy performances. Richberg also manages to straddle a fine line. His Williams is flamboyant and confident, yet never campy or cartoonish. Victor Becker’s clever set design and Paul Black’s lighting effectively support Teachout’s memory play concept. It even snows on New Year’s Eve.
But, the problem remains, after two hours of meticulously crafted talkity talkity talk, audiences don’t really learn anything new about these historical characters or won’t care much about these conversations or imagined dalliances. Some questions are just not worth asking.
Palm Beach Dramaworks presents the world premiere production of Terry Teachout’s “Billy and Me” through Dec. 31 at the Don & Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. Tickets are $75 at PalmBeachDramaworks.org.