Tennessee Williams’ final full-length play, In Masks Outrageous and Austere, is both a cause for celebration for Williams fanatics aiming to add another notch to their belts and a bizarre, blazing failure. A play cobbled together from various drafts penned by the playwright in his final years (working titles included Tent Worms and Gideon’s Point), and featuring the editorial contributions of Hollywood chronicler Gavin Lambert and novelist-historian Gore Vidal, the play is nonetheless a cohesive if absurd minor work from a master playwright.
Set in 1983 on a sundeck facing the ocean in the sketchily-drawn location of Gideon’s Point, the play begins by establishing its protagonists’ situations. Clarissa “Babe” Foxworth (Shirley Knight), a rich elderly woman, has found herself in Gideon’s Point after being abducted from her undisclosed former location along with her young husband Billy (Robert Beitzel) and Billy’s even younger assistant and lover Jerry (Sam Underwood).
They’re not sure exactly where they are, how they got there, or when they might be allowed to leave. Three mysterious men in suits, the Gideons, watch their every move and monitor their conversations, and they’re visited by a host of other locals, most notably a neighbor, the fashionable Mrs. Gorse-Bracken (Alison Fraser) and her retarded son Playboy (Connor Buckley), who roams around in only a yellow rain slicker and can occasionally be found in the local lighthouse, where seamen lure him with bags of gumdrops in exchange for sex.
Much of the play is, plotwise, a meandering mess. At one point, an almost implausibly tall black man and his little-person interpreter show up for a brief, pointless scene. Yes, this is one weird-ass play, full of Tennessee’s usual pet subjects, sex and gay desire, mixed together with a measure of paranoia and stirred with wild abandon. David Schweizer’s elaborate technologically savvy production, featuring auditorium-encapsulating scenic design by James Noone, with video and projections, mostly in the form of LED boards on all sides of the theatre, designed by Darrel Maloney, whose work — if somewhat misguided — is a marvel nonetheless.
You can’t really blame the Culture Project for wanting to put this play up on its feet. On the page, it’s a bizarre but enjoyable read for those grasping at straws to enjoy Tennessee’s later work for what it is — a fragmented window into his frayed psyche. And Babe, played with deliciously gleeful exasperation by Shirley Knight, who occasionally stumbles over her lines but nevertheless captures the essence of the character, is a ballsy Williams woman, not unlike Flora Goforth in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, seen last year off-Broadway thanks to the Roundabout’s production with Olympia Dukakis.
If Knight can’t quite outshine memories of Dukakis’s late-Williams mastery, she nevertheless looms high above the majority of her castmates here. Robert Beitzel is lifeless beyond resuscitation as bland husband Billy; even his coughing fits early on in the play are unconvincing. Sam Underwood, try though he may, is similarly unable to breathe life into the character of Jerry, and most of the others onstage are plagued by a similar palpable listlessness.
The only other standout here is Alison Fraser, whose campy take on Mrs. Gorse-Bracken adds some life to an otherwise DOA premiere production. Dressed to the nines in a purple faux Balenciaga dress, Fraser bounds energetically on and off the stage at various points during the play, providing comfort to Babe as she confronts the various inadequacies of her life. Ultimately, Ms. Fraser smooths over a number of the inadequacies of this imminently watchable stinker by adding some of the camp tricks she’s acquired as a usual suspect in the drag plays of Charles Busch (most recently The Divine Sister). During some of her featured moments, the play almost comes to life. But then one is reminded that Busch isn’t counted among this strange play’s posthumous tinkerers. Furthermore, it’s not a spoof on Williams (though it’s odd enough that it could be), it’s the real deal. With this seriousness of intent in mind, besides for its value as a literary relic, sadly In Masks Outrageous and Austere disappoints.