It's not always easy to spot the reason a show doesn't work, but anyone can see the problem with "Sweet Bird of Youth" at the Ahmanson. Tennessee Williams' 1959 play calls for two "monsters," a fading movie queen and an aging beachboy. This production supplies only one.
She is played by Lauren Bacall. Other actresses have seen Williams' heroine, Alexandra Del Lago, as a jittery lady with a ego problem. Nonsense, says Miss Bacall. This is a star. Her only problem is that other people have forgotten it.
Rather than awakening in a drugged stupor, this Alexandra gives the impression that she can't wait to roar into the day. The pills and the liquor and the oxygen mask aren't crutches; they're pick-me-ups. So is her current young man, Chance Wayne (Mark Soper).
There's nothing pathetic in the demands she makes on the world. From what we can see, she's still pulling her weight in it. We are surprised, though, that she hasn't kept tabs on the box office for her comeback picture. From beginning to end, this Alexandra Del Lago feels great, looks great and never once reaches out in weakness to another person.
That leaves out the needy, self-doubting artist that Williams discerned inside every star-monster, himself included. Bacall's Alexandra isn't a portrait. It's a cartoon, even a spoof. (Alexandra's complaint that her audiences are starting to "laugh in the wrong places" has application here.) But it's a bold cartoon. It has authority and carrying power. When Bacall is on, you pay attention.
When Mark Soper is on, as Chance Wayne, you don't. And "Sweet Bird of Youth" is Chance's story more than it is Alexandra's. It's his home town they've ended up in. It's he that Boss Finley (Henderson Forsythe) has the knife out for. Williams even gives Chance the curtain line. If he doesn't register, the play is only half there.
Soper doesn't register. He might, on film. He might convince us that Chance is as tough a cookie, in his way, as Alexandra. But at the Ahmanson the impression is that of an innocuous and rather sulky teen-ager--I thought of the boy in "Ah, Wilderness"--who talks too much. Alexandra might be interested in him, briefly. But nobody in town would give a damn whether he was back or not.
What's needed here is a dangerous young actor, someone along the lines of Ed Harris, who played the role in a small-theater production some years back in Los Angeles. We don't see Soper as capable of taking Alexandra in hand, and we can't imagine why everyone in town sees him as such a sexual threat. The middle part of the play, concerned with his standing up against Boss Finley and being menaced by his boys, falls flat.
The beginning and the end go better, thanks to Bacall. But she can't do it all by herself. She needs an actor with the craft and the moxie to stand up to her, to make her work to win those scenes. Right now it's no contest--and no drama.
The rest of the cast, under Michael Blakemore's direction, speaks the play clearly and on the beat. (You can tell that Blakemore is an Englishman.) Given stereotyped roles to play, they play them to order--Forsythe as the hypocritical Boss Finley, Georgia Southcotte as Chance's tremulous Aunt Nonnie, etc. The most individual touch was James Cahill's hoarseness as the heckler who interrupts Boss Finley--how does an actor go about achieving hoarseness?
Michael Annals' settings, on a revolving stage, seem a bit flimsy for the Ahmanson, where we are used to heavy settings that spell everything out. Lighting designer Martin Aronstein conveys a sense of a foggy Gulf night with something stirring in the palm trees. At the Ahmanson through Jan. 25.