A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur Review: Tennessee Williams Late, Witty Play About Four Women

La Femme’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ late, little-known play about four women living and working and bickering with one another, offers something you won’t find in A Glass Menagerie — though it’s set in the same year (1937) and place (a rundown section of St. Louis), contains a familiar dose of heartbreak, and reflects the playwright’s poetic sensibility and deep compassion. But “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur,” despite its precious title, is also wickedly witty, Williams creating smart-mouthed characters and letting them loose on one another.

Crève Coeur means heart break in French, but it is also the name of a park in St. Louis, where Bodey (the always terrific Kristine Nielsen) has planned a picnic on this particular Sunday, with an ulterior motive. She wants to set up her twin brother Buddy with her roommate Dorothea (Jean Lichty, executive director of La Femme, who is spot-on as a kind of super-athletic, comically tinged Blanche DuBois.) But Dorothea has no interest in Bodey’s brother. Dotty (as Bodey calls her) is currently awaiting a telephone call from one Ralph Ellis, the principal of the high school where she teaches civics. It soon emerges that Dotty has had more than her eye on Ralph; she’s had her body in his fancy sedan, nicknamed the Flying Cloud,  which has horizontally adjustable seats.

“Oh ho, he got you drink, did he, with a flask of liquor in that Flying Cloud…”

“Drunk on a single Pink Lady?…The mildest sort of cocktail, made with sloe gin and grenadine.”

“The gin was slow, maybe, but that man was a fast one.”

Suddenly, there is an unannounced visit from Helena (Annette O’Toole, hilariously snooty), an art history teacher who calls her colleague Dorothea, and has arrived in hopes of whisking her away to a new apartment where the two teachers can room together. Helena is a putdown queen – she insists on mispronouncing the last name of the zaftig Bodey as Miss Bodenheifer, emphasis on the heifer.  If Helena can’t tolerate Bodey, she positively loathes Miss Gluck (Polly McKie), an upstairs neighbor who only speaks German, and is deeply (albeit comically) depressed because of the recent death of her mother, and thus regularly hangs out at Bodey’s abode.  Helena insists that Bodey shoo Miss Gluck back upstairs. Bodey snaps that she’ll stay as long as she likes. “What’s it to you. She got nothin’ contagious. You can’t catch heartbreak if you have got no heart.”

But all four women do experience heartbreak, though Helena hides it well, revealing her heart in a brief interior monologue that’s equal parts funny and sad:

“I would rather starve than reduce my social standards by accepting dinner invitations from that middle-aged gaggle of preposterously vulgar old maids…Loneliness in the company of five intellectually destitute spinsters is simply loneliness multiplied by five.”

What “Creve Coeur” has in store for Dotty will surprise nobody who knows Williams’ work, especially Glass Menagerie. But there are a couple of other genuine surprises. The popular narrative of Williams’ life is that he declined sharply in the more than three decades between his first great success and this play, which debuted Off-Broadway in 1979, four years before his death, and ran for less than a month, despite a cast including Shirley Knight.  Yet, though it might not be a masterpiece, “Creve Coeur” has a relaxed humor and even, winningly, a kind of optimism that is hard to find in Williams early, more popular work. It’s as if the elder, more worldly Williams is revisiting his youthful, overly earnest artistic recollections — and maybe even poking fun at himself.   I’m thinking in particular of Dotty’s reminiscence of a former beau, a music student, who suffered from premature ejaculation. Dotty recalls her conversation with the family physician:

“Is it curable, Doctor?”

“Maybe, with great patience but.. don’t gamble on it….relinquish him to his interest in music…”

In this first major New York production of “Creve Coeur’ in years, director Austin Pendleton is somewhat hampered by the stage at Theatre at St. Clements Church, which is too small to allow for the full flavor of the scenes in the play of almost slapstick chaos, and which is made worse by a busy, overcrowded set that emphasizes how poor an interior decorator Bodey is. The abstract wooden latticework in front of a backdrop of squalid, squat apartment buildings seemed an odd way to evoke tenement fire escapes. The acoustics also didn’t seem ideal. But these are quibbles. La Femme and Pendleton deserve our thanks for bringing attention back to something worth mounting from Tennessee Williams’ “declining years.”

Jean Lichty, Annette O’Toole, Kristine Nielsen, Polly McKie

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur
Theatre at St. Clements
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Harry Feiner (Set and Lighting Designer), Beth Goldenberg (Costume Designer), Leah Loukas (Wig and Hair Design),Carrie Mossman (Prop Designer), Amy Stoller (Dialect Designer and Dramaturg), Ron Piretti (Fight Director)
Cast:Kristine Nielsen, Annette O’Toole, Jean Lichty, and  Polly McKie
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets: $65-$85
A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur is set to run through October 21, 2018

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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