Dear Mr. Williams at Le Petit Theatre through October 24
I had seen Bryan Batt’s reading of his one man show Dear Mr. Williams at the 2019 Tennessee Williams Festival. I admired his telling of his personal story, but felt that the sections taken from Williams’ plays and other writings slowed things down, and questioned how much they really added to the script.
I’m thus delighted to report that now, in its premiere full production at Le Petit, through the alchemical theatrical magic of Batt and Director Michael Wilson, the two parts of Batt’s tale have been integrated into a single whole in which the great dramatist’s passages trenchantly comment on and enhance Batt’s coming of age tale.
Dear Mr. Williams ends right around the time I first met Batt in New York through mutual friends in the mid-1980s. His happy-go-lucky demeanor camouflaged the roiling emotions he harbored just below the surface. In Dear Mr. Williams, he lays them out with honesty and bravery.
Batt was born into an uptown, upper middle class New Orleans family. If he would always be close with his mother, whom he warmly describes as a “Southern belle”, he forthrightly states that he had no real connection, or “click”, with his Dad. In one of his many witty asides he compares the two of them saying “He was Monday Night Football. I was Here’s Lucy.”
As he addresses the audience–there’s no real fourth wall–Batt admits to indulging in exposition but when it’s as interesting as the history of his family, which founded and ran the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park, one doesn’t mind at all. The play also benefits from Batt’s self-deprecating humor.
With infectious enthusiasm, Batt describes his uniquely NOLA upbringing, which includes an insider’s view of a traditional Mardi Gras krewe (and some of its homophobic members), and conveys his burgeoning passion for theater as it intertwined through high school and beyond with Williams’ holy trinity, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Batt lays out how the themes and characters of these plays reflected his own life, such as the use of alcohol as a palliative, a trait he shared with Cat’s Brick.
The heart of the play, however, is Batt’s coming out story as he questions, denies, and gradually deals with his homosexuality in an era which, though not that long ago, was very different from today’s. If he acknowledges that he was “of privilege” and lucky to have supportive parents, that doesn’t minimize the tortuous route he took to gain self-acceptance which, sadly, included an episode of sexual molestation by a family friend when he was 14 years old. Batt’s raw emotion as he recalls this delivers a chilling punch to the gut.
Batt is greatly aided by Wilson who has done an excellent job of theatricalizing the script with telling props, evocative music, and a masterly combination of James Courtney’s lighting and James Lanius III’s videos. If the former changes the scene with instantaneous precision, the latter expands the production’s universe far beyond the walls of the theater.
Wilson has also guided Batt to switch effortlessly back and forth between himself and, for the Williams passage, a fine impersonation of the playwright (even if he occasionally sounds a bit like Truman Capote). Batt/Wilson give lust to Williams and candidly present him as a person and not just a “great playwright”.
Dear Mr. Williams is such a well-written work, including a slightly surreal section and a touching cameo appearance by Helen Hayes towards its conclusion, that any shortcomings are more by omission.
Batt doesn’t mention much of his older brother Jay, a Republican and former City Councilmember from District A; though they disagree politically, Bryan has always said that his sibling has been supportive of him. One wonders if that was indeed the case all the time when they were kids.
If Batt is overall sensitive to the changing nature of language, for example giving off a withering glance after he uses the word “plantation”, his casual unironic tossing off of the phrase “white flight” was the one mildly cringey moment in the show.
I did find it slightly surprising that Batt seemingly had no gay role models. After all, I had gay neighbors in the apartment building where I grew up in New York, and there were a number of out gay teachers in my public high school, some of whom looked like the Marlboro Man. I suppose, however, that things might’ve been different uptown here and in a New Orleans private school. Still, given his involvement in theater…
More importantly, there’s just the briefest mention of AIDS which one would think would’ve had a significant impact on a young gay man in the 1980s; I know it did for me. Even if Batt wasn’t that much affected by it at that stage of his life, the show might’ve benefitted from an explanation as to why that was so.
These are mere quibbles however. Dear Mr. Williams portrays a fascinating journey of a man who would go on to conquer Broadway, film and television (Mad Men), a journey that is now, hopefully, an easier one for young people than it was when Bryan Batt was growing up.
[For tickets and more information, go to https://www.lepetittheatre.com/listings/events/dear-mr-williams]
Wedding Secrets at Playmakers Theater through October 24
It’s always a pleasure to discover new talent.
In Wedding Secrets at Playmakers Theater in Covington, Sarah Ryals plays a teenager who falls in love with a cute guy…and then soon falls out of love with him. She goes from a mouthy teen to a lovestruck one and then to jaded frustration with expert comic timing, finding laugh after laugh. A first grade teacher by day appearing for the first time on stage, I hope to see much more of Ryals in the future.
It’s equally nice to see talented thespians, especially those you haven’t seen for a while, such as Jane McNulty and Anysia Genre who play sisters with very opposite natures.
McNulty shines as Grace who, though desperate for love, can’t hold on to a man; she pumps fizzy fun into what could be a stock character.
Genre has the more challenging (and, I imagine, less fun to act) role of a woman dissatisfied with her marriage. It may be a one note part but Genre plays it with utter believability as well as a resonant voice which she knowingly projects, an attribute some of her castmates would do well to follow.
Written and directed by Joe Starzyk, who recently moved to the area, Wedding Secrets is a throwback to Broadway comedies of the 1950s. Its couples, including a pair of newlyweds and each of their sets of parents, have their various problems (romantic, financial, etc.). Misunderstandings occur. Fights break out. And everything gets tidily wrapped up in two hours. If only life were like that.
Playmakers is giving Secrets its regional premiere and a recent audience certainly seemed to enjoy it. And when it sticks to humor that emerges organically from its well-crafted characters, it certainly does provide genuine entertainment.
Yet Starzyk spends too much stage time giving us straightforward exposition often wrapped in outdated cliches bordering on the misogynistic (banal jokes about a menopausal woman’s hot flashes should’ve been outlawed decades ago). Some plot points are simply unbelievable while you can see certain narrative twists coming from a mile away.
As for the rest of the cast, which includes, in other featured roles, Chris Aberle, Jonah Boudreaux, Trevor Colbert, Evette Randolph, Katie Ryals (Sarah’s older sister playing her older sister), Noel Tomingas, and the playwright as an uncle who’s a seeming lothario, all fare well enough by community theater standards but don’t always bring out the comic rhythms of the script.
Whatever its shortcomings, I’m absolutely delighted that Wedding Secrets has been packing’em in at Playmakers which has endured its share of challenges between Covid and Hurricane Ida. Clearly, this 66-year-old theater company knows the secret for success.
[More info and tickets at https://playmakers-theater-05.webself.net/home]
A Studio in the Woods and Mondo Bizarro present Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man, a Clear Creek Creative eco-cultural theater experience to benefit Hurricane Ida Relief through RISE St. James and The United Houma Nation’s Yakani Ekelanna Garden.
Directed by Nick Slie, designed by Jeff Becker, and featuring local artists Jeffery Darensbourg, Kendra Unique, Lisa Shattuck, Cinnamon Vixen and Lyle Werner, Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man is an environmental, cultural and spiritual parable derived from living in the foothills of Appalachia, one man among many seeking to make sense of the time, place and condition in which we live.
Performances are October 21-24 at A Studio in Woods (13401 Patterson Rd., NOLA). More info at http://www.astudiointhewoods.org/event/ezell/
Theatre UNO opens its season with Hoodoo Love, written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Katori Hall, at the Robert E. Nims Theatre on UNO’s campus. A blues tale set in Memphis in the 1930s, Hoodoo Love illustrates the power of love and how it cannot be manipulated. Toulou, a young washerwoman, experiences love for the first time and will stop at nothing to keep the attention and affections of her man, blues singer Ace of Spades, including turning to an African American folk magic called Hoodoo. This decision will cost someone their life.
Director Richon May Wallace, whose impressive credits include last season’s Single Black Female and Eurydice, helms Hoodoo Love which runs from October 22 through October 30. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit UNO’s School of the Arts website at http://SOTAPerformances.uno.edu
After a Hurricane Ida postponement, Aqua Mob, New Orleans’ first and only community-based water ballet ensemble(!), finally returns for its fourth season of water ballet production with SuspiriAcqua: A Haunted Water Ballet, running November 5, 6, 12, & 13 in the pool at the Drifter Hotel (3522 Tulane Ave.).
In SuspiriAcqua, Suzie Bunion (Amelia Lombard) decides to perfect her dance studies in the most famous school, the Academy of Drift Haus. But she arrives to find mysterious forces at work that are both frightening and exhilarating. Through song, aquatic dance and flag spinning, SuspiriAcqua will celebrate the fabulousness of confronting terror.
Doors open at 7pm, the show dives off at 8pm, and tickets are available at the door and at : https://www.eventbrite.com/e/suspiriacqua-a-haunted-waterballet-tickets-190760308217
Tulane’s Department of Theatre and Dance presents Alice Childress’ Obie Award-winning 1957 play Trouble in Mind which will be receiving its Broadway premiere later this month. Trouble in Mind is about the troubled production of a fictional, anti-lynching Broadway play, “Chaos in Belleville”. In Trouble, Wiletta Mayer, the African-American lead of “Chaos”, along with its other black actors, must deal with the condescending attitude of their white director, Al Manners. Mayer stands up to Manners and reveals his racist attitudes but faces severe consequences as a result.
Performances run November 9-14 at the Lupin Memorial Theater in the Dixon Performing Arts Center. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, or online at: https://liberalarts.tulane.edu/departments/theatre-dance/box-office
And if you’re in the mood for a little tricking and treating, the inimitable Daniel Nardicio and Dworld Nola present The Devil Wears Nada Special Masked Ball Edition with legendary DJ Johnny Dynell. That’s “Nada” as in “Naked” (or in underwear).
Plan to be there Friday, October 29, 9pm-4am, at Café Istanbul (2372 St Claude Ave.). Tickets at https://www.redeyetickets.com/the-devil-wears-nada-nola/ It promises to be the sexiest party of the Halloween season!!