When Tennessee Williams received the International Institute of Arts and Letters Award, actor-director Dan Mason was moved to go up to Williams to tell him how influential he had been in Mason's life in the theater. Williams' best works contained the sheer force of poetic revelation when he touched on the tenderness and lyricism of people whose lonely dreams were often shunted aside in the rough bravado of the American century.
In the theater, the sincerest form of flattery is the compliment of production, and Mason is going back to the younger Williams in "Early Tennessee," four one-acts that open at the Powerhouse on Friday. They consist of "Mooney's Kid Don't Cry," "Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen," "Auto-Da-Fe" and "Something Unspoken."
"Williams's depth and latitude have always amazed and moved me," Mason said. "And of course I'm not the only one. When I saw a production of 'The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore' in San Francisco, people were having anxiety attacks because he was getting so close to the unknown territory of death. He was pushing farther than most playwrights are willing to go, and it could be terrifying."
Mason, a veteran actor and teacher, taught at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and headed a theater called Shelter West before coming to California and teaching privately. Most recently he was an alternate for Rene Auberjonois in the Los Angeles Theatre Center production of "The Petrified Forest."
Of the plays, he said, " 'Mooney's Kid' has a '40s O'Neill style. The writing is stiffer than in Williams' later work. But it deals with how a man who is perceived as a bit of a lug is also tenderhearted. It seems ahead of its time, too, when his wife leaves him with their child to go off in pursuit of her own dreams.
" 'Auto-Da-Fe,' is set in New Orleans and deals with an effete young man who is very unnerved by the accidental discovery of a photo of two men making love, and how he can never come to grips with the impact of how that has disturbed him.
" 'Talk to Me' is one of Williams' best-known works, and, like 'Something Unspoken,' it deals with two people living together. In 'Something Unspoken,' it's two women. In 'Talk to Me,' it's a man and his wife. But both have to do with intimacy, or the fear of it. Williams really hits deep levels of psychological insight, and in 'Talk to Me' especially, I think he says that we don't use sex so much for pleasure as much as we use it as something to protect us against the void."
Jules Aaron is a resident director at the South Coast Repertory. He had nothing to do with D. B. Gilles' "Men's Singles" when it played there in 1985, but he has now. "Men's Singles" returns to the West Coast next Sunday at the Cast-at-the-Circle Theater, with Aaron in the director's chair.
"The play is set in a locker room of a tennis club and deals with the relationship that develops, or has been developing, among three men," Aaron explained. "One is a salesman whose marriage is falling apart. The other is an early Yuppie--an advertising man on the move. The third is a gay psychotherapist who's romantically involved with the mother of one of his patients--he hasn't found complete satisfaction in being with men.
"What I like about this play is the way it deals with how people seem to each other as opposed to what's really going on inside them, and how our relationships change with such constancy that we can't always gain control of them, or even a clear perspective. What I like most of all, though, is that it's one of those rare works that has it both ways. It's complex and thoughtful, and it's also very funny."
Other openings for the week include: Monday, "The Gangster Lullabye" at Actors Alley; Tuesday, "13 Down" at the Cast; Friday, "Growing Pains" at the Westwood Playhouse and "The Night We Seduced the Lifeguard" at the Deja Vu; and Saturday, "Bouncers" at Tiffany's South Stage, with Ron Link directing.
LATE CUE: Paul Zaloom brings his Theater of Trash to LACE for three performances beginning Sept. 25. The flyer for the show depicts a man, presumably Zaloom, lying flat on his back with a number of shoes stuck to his body, as though a number of people had walked all over him and left their footwear as evidence of their disdain. It's a great visual metaphor. Who hasn't felt like that at one time or another? Or even more than occasionally?