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THEATER BEAT

'Three by Tenn' Captures Insight From Williams

July 26, 1996|PHILIP BRANDES

Although "Three by Tenn," from Actors Alley at the El Portal, follows closely on the heels of "Four by Tennessee" at the Fountain Theatre, these two fine Tennessee Williams one-act anthologies are independent productions. Fortunately, all those numbers add up to a win-win proposition, as the shows illuminate complementary facets of the late playwright's signature poetic fixations--even in the one piece they share in common.

Where "Four by Tennessee" draws principally from the early and late periods in Williams' career to evoke an edgier, sometimes eerily cryptic ambience, "Three by Tenn" emphasizes the emotional intensity, nostalgia and autobiographical dimensions commonly associated with Williams' more familiar plays of the 1940s. Walter Koenig's insightful staging brings warmth and compassion to characters alienated by their overheightened sensitivity--Williams meets Chekhov, in a sense.

"Portrait of a Madonna" is classic Williams--a moving study of a reclusive spinster (Judith Ann Levitt) enslaved to her dreams, losing both her grip on reality and her independence as arrangements are made to confine her to a state asylum (with obvious affinities to "A Streetcar Named Desire"). In the autobiographical "The Long Goodbye," a troubled writer (Terry Evans) struggles with memories of his disintegrating family and failed socialist ideals as he vacates the apartment in which he grew up; Karen Davenport is a vivid presence in his flashbacks as the coquette sister who abandoned him.

Koenig's take on "A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot" is less outrageously comic than Hope Alexander-Willis' version at the Fountain Theatre, focusing instead on the pain underlying two gossipy biddies' inebriated, reckless abandon during a convention they're attending in New Orleans. As the antagonistic friends, Jill Jones and Carol Keis dig deep beneath the surface to rub salt in each other's psychic wounds.

Koenig gets a notably consistent tone from his different casts, and his recurring imagery involving mirrors and reflections of characters' younger selves is a slyly appropriate unifying concept that never becomes obtrusive.

* "Three by Tenn," El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Sept. 8. $16. (818) 508-4200. Running time: 1 hours, 45 minutes.

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