- Last Updated: 12:19 AM, April 18, 2012
- Posted: 10:49 PM, April 16, 2012
IN MASKS OUTRAGEOUS AND AUSTERE
Culture Project, 45 Bleecker St.; 866-811-4111. Through May 26.
Too many shows these days are workshopped or focus-grouped to death. As a result, they’re nicely crafted but comfortably safe. “In Masks Outrageous and Austere” is the exact opposite.
This Tennessee Williams play, which opened last night at Culture Project, proudly flies its freak flag. It’s messy, verbose, erratic. The plot is preposterous. The dialogue is a deep shade of purple. The characters are garish caricatures.
And that’s even before the entrance of the African-American hulk, whose grunts are translated into English by his dwarf sidekick.
In the program’s notes, director David Schweizer uses a lot of caps: “ABSURD,” “EMOTIONAL,” “POETIC.”
Audiences are likely to add “WTF?” and “OMG!”
“Masks” seems like the fever dream of a drugged-up, boozed-up writer — which is what Williams was when he worked on this fascinating monstrosity. The play is the last one he completed before his death, in 1983, and it had never been produced until now.
It reads like a greatest hits of his recurring themes and obsessions, starting with the character of Babe Foxworth (screen and stage vet Shirley Knight), a horny billionairess married to Billy (Robert Beitzel), a much younger Southern gentleman who doesn’t satisfy her.
Billy neglects his bedroom duties not just because he suffers from consumption, but because he’s having an affair with his “secretary,” Jerry (Sam Underwood).
This would be enough drama to fill your average play. But “Masks” isn’t average anything.
Turns out the trio’s been abducted to a remote beach house by strange men who are all named Gideon. A local eccentric, Mrs. Gorse-Bracken (the brilliant Alison Fraser), roams the premises with her mentally challenged son, Playboy (Connor Buckley).
With the help of a crack design team, Schweizer tried to match this craziness with sensory overload. Lined on all sides by blue-tinged video screens, the entire venue pulses to electronic music. It’s like a 1980s sci-fi disco — with real sand in the aisles.
Too bad that same care didn’t extend to the acting. The men are uniformly weak, and Knight, an Oscar nominee for Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth,” back in 1962, is wobbly but game, giving her all to lines like “Sex gratification called vice — I want it, need it, will have it!”
Fraser (“The Divine Sister,” “The School for Lies”) is the only one who’s completely in sync with the play’s florid, baroque language. By turns arch, melancholy and biting, she’s so good that she inspires and lifts Knight in their scenes together.
Is “Masks” a good show? No. But it’s not a bad one, either. You may scratch your head, but you won’t be bored by this theatrical UFO.