William Inge jumps Tennessee Williams within the first few minutes of meeting him, ripping off his clothes to have sex with him, in “The Gentleman Caller,” a new, two-character play by Philip Dawkins, who imagines the first two encounters between these future eminent playwrights as the steamy sexual cat and mouse game of two gay young men.
Williams recounted the actual first meetings with Inge differently in his “Memoirs.” In 1944, Inge, then a theater critic and arts writer for a St. Louis newspaper, interviewed Williams at the Williams family home in a St. Louis suburbs, which Williams was visiting shortly before the out-of-town tryout in Chicago of “The Glass Menagerie,” the play that yanked him from obscurity.
“It’s always lonely at home now: My friends have all dispersed,” Williams wrote three decades later. “I mentioned this to Bill and he cordially invited me to his apartment near the river. We had a gala night among his friends. Later we attended the St. Louis Symphony together. He made my homecoming an exceptional pleasure.”
Could this pleasure have included the carnal? Was Williams just being discreet in his recollection? Maybe, although “Memoirs” is not a discreet book; it frequently catalogues his sexual escapades.
Literary scholars have speculated about the possibility of a sexual aspect of the relationship between Williams and Inge that began that night in St. Louis. But as one such scholar, Ralph Voss, said during a panel discussion on the two playwrights: “The question of whether or not they became lovers at that point has always been of far less interest to me than what happened there, which was a case of mutual admiration.”
The question of their sexual involvement seems to be of more interest to playwright Philip Dawkins in “The Gentleman Caller,” an Abingdon Theater Company production opening at the Cherry Lane. Dawkins’ play seems at least as passionate about depicting two gay men in the 1940s and the different ways they deal with their sexuality, as it is in offering portraits of two celebrated artists at the beginning of their careers.
Bill (Daniel K. Isaac) abruptly halts his initial aggressive sexual advance, after Tenn (Juan Francisco Villa) starts giggling, which makes him self-conscious. Bill apologizes. He’s mortified, mostly that Tenn will tell people. Bill is in the closet; Tenn is out and proud – or, as much out as any gay man was in 1944.
“You’re not… one of those? Are you?” Bill says.
“Honey,’ Tenn replies, “I’m a whole bunch of ‘those.’”
Over the course of the play, it’s Tenn who becomes the seducer, getting a reluctant/not-reluctant Bill to smooch, play footsie, flirt, and dance, first in Bill’s St. Louis apartment in Act I, and then in Tenn’s Chicago hotel room on New Year’s Eve 1944 in Act II.
As students of either playwright know: Williams, just two years older than Inge, became his mentor, offering not just advice but concrete help. He sent Inge’s manuscript to his agent, Audrey Wood, who became Inge’s agent as well. “Inge owed the launching of his career to Williams,” John Lahr writes in his biography of Williams (which contains in its 700 pages only a handful of references to Inge.) After that first meeting in St. Louis, they became friends, peers and rivals; Williams became intensely envious of Inge during the latter’s string of hits on Broadway and in Hollywood during the 1950’s: “Come Back, Little Sheba,” “Picnic,” “Bus Stop,” “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.”
Sara C. Walsh’s set is dotted with sky-high stacks of paper – presumably manuscripts – topped by table lamps. But little specifically about their plays, or the playwrights’ shared history, makes its way into “The Gentleman Caller.” This is largely because of the focus on their first encounters in 1944 (before Williams’ first hit, and before Inge even identified as a playwright), and on the imagined sexual tension (and documented heavy drinking) between the two. But, helped by Villa’s performance, the voice of Tennessee Williams comes through vividly in Tenn, who serves as the nominal narrator. He takes a potshot or two at critics and producers, makes cracks about the drunkenness of Laurette Taylor (the original star of Glass Menagerie) throws in little French phrases, and makes both elegantly lewd jokes and self-parodying declarations like: “I don’t have any grand ambitions to change the world, darling. I just want to live a simple life of epic fornications.” Some of Tenn’s one-liners feel forced and fall flat, but it’s easy to imagine most of these as failed efforts by the overly ebullient character of Tenn rather than by the author of “The Gentleman Caller.”
Isaac has a harder time with Inge, who is not just a less colorful character; he is only vaguely drawn, little more than almost generically uptight.
Dawkins’ writing is at its most thought-provoking when he has Tenn argue for the connection between homosexuality and creativity, in part as a way of encouraging Bill to make the leap into playwriting. Some of these rants are casually subversive: “This writing, this searching, this is how fugitives reproduce! It’s our nature. Do you honestly think a heterosexual could have written Remembrance of Things Past? Or The Sun Also Rises?! Or the BIBLE?! Come off it, Bill! Only a fugitive, only a man on the run could write something so vital!”
Since their deaths — Inge by suicide in 1973, Williams after a long drug- and alcohol-fueled decline in 1983 – Williams has ascended and Inge descended in public consciousness. Their relationship has been even less visible. That seems about to change. It was also dramatized in “Billy and Me” by Terry Teachout, which premiered in December in Florida and has yet to have a production in New York.
The Gentleman Caller
Abingdon at Cherry Lane Theater
Written by Philip Dawkins
Directed by Directed by Tony Speciale
Scenic design by Sara C. Walsh, costume design by Hunter Kaczorowski, lighting design by Zach Blane, and sound design and original music by Christian Frederickson Cast: Daniel K. Isaac as William Inge and Juan Francisco Villa as Tennessee Williams.
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including an intermission.
The Gentleman Caller runs through May 26.