Watching Tennessee Williams’ poetically nonrealistic “The Two-Character Play,” which he wrote and rewrote for 10 years up to its 1973 New York opening, brings several other plays to mind: Sartre’s “No Exit,” for one, and Genet’s “The Maids.”
Like the existential “No Exit,” “Two-Character” — which director John Fisher, in his Theatre Rhinoceros news release, describes as a “comic drama” — features, yes, two characters trapped in a sort of hell at least partially of their own making. And, as in the disturbing “The Maids,” Williams’ siblings are inextricably bound in a convoluted love-hate relationship.
Seen at another angle — and this is how Fisher sees it, according to his program notes — “Two-Character” is essentially “a monologue about a divided self.”
Williams left home as a young man to pursue an artistic career, abandoning his “other half,” a mentally disabled sister whom his mother then had lobotomized. Anguish and guilt haunted him throughout his life and work; “Two-Character” is a final “cri de coeur” for redemption, perhaps, and escape from emotional pain.
Actress Clare and her brother, actor-playwright-company manager Felice, are on a theatrical tour; the curtain is about to rise on their latest work, the unfinished “The Two-Character Play.”
But the rest of the company has abandoned them, Clare is stoned on something or other and the two are at each other’s throats.
Nevertheless the play begins, and they are now portraying a brother and sister named Clare and Felice, alone in their parents’ cold and decaying home, both with agoraphobia dating back to a catastrophic family event. Terrified, each wants the other to venture out for help.
As the plot unfolds, reality and theatricality merge: Are Felice and Clare actually the characters they’re playing, compulsively enacting a real-life scenario? Is all this happening in Felice’s mind? It’s hard to know.
At least some of the confusion must be blamed on Fisher’s histrionic and muddled direction, not helped by a cluttered stage set and haphazard sound effects.
Alexandra Creighton’s sashaying, superficial portrayal of Clare leaves Ryan Tasker, as an overwrought Felice, stranded. I’ve seen both these actors do better than this. While it may be part of Fisher’s “divided self” concept, it’s distracting that, although they’re meant to be siblings, Creighton has a grating Southern accent and Tasker an overarticulated, stagey mid-Atlantic one.
Ultimately, however metaphorical the writing, and however abstract the directorial concept, a respect for the characters’ inner truths is essential.
Presented by Theatre Rhinoceros
Where: Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $10 to $25
Contact: (415) 552-4100, www.therhino.org