By Annette Hinkle
Say the name Tennessee Williams, and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” are the plays that most audiences call to mind. For good reason. Williams was a master of tapping into the human psyche and the heartache of dreams unfulfilled and all these plays strike that chord effectively.
But Williams wrote other works that never found the mass appeal of his biggest hits. These are plays that delve into the deepest corner of human misery and, though they may tread on difficult terrain, bring a spark of understanding in the end.
“In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel” is one such Williams play. Written in 1969, the title is faithful to its setting, and the play offers a voyeuristic look at the waning days of the complex and volatile relationship between a renown — but psychotic — painter and his long suffering wife. The play is being offered through April 29, 2012 by HITFest. An outgrowth of the Naked Stage play reading series at Guild Hall, HITFest producers Josh Perl and Peter Zablotsky have, for a third season, transformed the stage of the Bridgehampton Community House into The Bridge, a self-contained intimate black box theater which Perl feels suits ‘Tokyo Hotel” to a tee.
“I really appreciate the little space we have and the economic realities of it,” explains Perl. “We’re not expecting to do the greatest hits and have 300 people show up. That’s not going to happen nor is it what we’re looking to do.”
“This is a terrific little chamber piece by one of America’s greatest playwrights,” he adds. “It wasn’t that Williams couldn’t have written another block buster, but that’s not what he was about. It’s much more interior. An actor heard an audience member say ‘I feel like I’m a voyeur watching the interior of something I shouldn’t have seen.’ It’s that kind of piece and that kind of space.”
This production of “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel” is directed by Perl with a set by Peter-Tolin Baker and features Seth Hendricks in the role of Mark, the tortured painter, and Licia James-Zegar as Miriam, his embittered wife. The couple has traveled to Tokyo and checked into a hotel where they keep separate rooms. Mark is there to develop a new style of work and rarely emerges from his room where he spends countless hours painting with a spray gun on canvas tacked to the floor, frequently using his own body as a brush.
As the play opens, Miriam is alone in the hotel bar where she orders a stiff drink and makes a none too subtle pass at the barman (Glenn L. Cruz). A callous and calculating “ugly American” with a lack of cultural understanding and a penchant for getting what she wants (men and alcohol seemingly at the top of her list), she makes plans for a side trip to Kyoto and works to convince the barman, who is happily engaged, to accompany her on her jaunt.
One glimpse of her husband explains why. Disheveled, covered in paint, unable to stand and rambling incoherently, Mark enters the bar in the full throes of a physical and mental breakdown — perhaps due to paint fumes. He’s convinced he’s the first artist to have discovered color and is fearful of his realization. He can’t hold a drink properly and Miriam is forced to pour the liquor down his throat. She obviously hopes it will have a curative effect on him.
Meanwhile, Miriam is developing an exit strategy. She has secured many of her husband’s most valuable works back home to ensure her financial future. She has also contacted Mark’s longtime agent, Leonard (Terrence Fiore) and summoned him to Tokyo. When he arrives, she announces she is turning Mark’s care over to him. She expects Leonard to take Mark back to the States where she imagines he’ll be institutionalized. For her part, Miriam has no intention of accompanying him and shares details of how she plans to enjoy her life free from the burden of her husband.
Audiences may find Miriam’s callousness toward her obviously ill husband difficult to fathom. But Williams, who is said to have loosely based Mark and Miriam on Jackson Pollock (whom he knew personally) and Lee Krasner, leaves us with little doubt about her love for the man. This is a couple who, with time and madness, have grown tragically distant. After supporting and nurturing Mark in his career, Miriam finds in his delirium, he has a new mistress — his work.
“In the bar of a Tokyo Hotel” is, at its heart, a love story. But this is love at the end of life when illness conspires to break it in two. The truth is, Mark is killing himself and Miriam can’t bear to watch. We know relief will come with the inevitable, but the façade remains intact as long as it’s needed. And in the end, we find that the best-laid plans don’t, in fact, exist at all.
“In The Bar of a Tokyo Hotel” runs Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 at tokyo-hitfest.eventbrite.com or 525-2995.
Top: Seth Hendricks, Terrence Fiore and Licia James-Zegar in the bar of a Tokyo hotel.