Sex, stupidity, and satire are blended tenuously in this new adaptation of a controversial Tennessee Williams film. Although “Baby Doll” is not one of the revered author’s more famous considerations of a fragile woman in peril, it does present a semi-realistic view of an uneducated young woman’s instinct for survival among brutes. There are undoubtedly some of us who can recall the huge and very provocative billboard that stretched almost half a block atop Broadway’s Victoria Theater’s marquee in 1956. It caught our eyes even as it might have stopped traffic displaying the young, recently discovered actress Carol Baker in a nightgown lying in a crib sucking her thumb.
The film that included such greats as Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, and Mildred Dunnock was intended as a satirical comedy and was acclaimed by many critics at the time. But it was also given a “C” rating (“Condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency”) thereby cooking its goose at the box office. It was heralded as written by Tennessee Williams, but in reality its mostly suggestive screenplay was primarily written by the film’s director, Elia Kazan.
Some of that suggestiveness remains in this still by-sex-possessed adaptation, a collaboration by McCarter Theater’s artistic director Emily Mann and French writer Pierre Laville. For our nostalgic edification, their version opens with the spotlight on (the titular character) Baby Doll curled up in her crib on the second floor of the dilapidated plantation house on the Mississippi Delta. The time is 1952, and it’s as hot inside as it is outside. Kudos to set and lighting designer Edward Pierce, who provides us with an impressive look into the sparsely furnished (some of it destined to be carted away for lack of payment) interior rooms including a crumbling attic. A rather barren porch and front yard with one lonely rose bush and an old water pump help us to assume that this neglected home as well as its pathetic inhabitants have seen better days.
True, the story was based on characters of limited intelligence and unlimited urges that Williams created in two pre-1945 one-act plays “The Unsatisfactory Supper” and “27 Wagons Full of Cotton.” Williams (who would soon hit pay dirt with “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire”) would expand once again upon his characters in a rewrite that resulted in the 1977 “Tiger Tale” (This little-known play had a brief run Off Broadway in 1999.)
I do not know how closely this newest adaptation strays in its style and tone from the one written by Lucy Bailey and produced in the U.K. in 2000 at the Birmingham Repertory Theater. What matters is that this darkly humorous trifle has some good things going for it and again some not such good things that keep this adaptation in the still promising stages of development.
Laville, who first adapted “Baby Doll” into French in 2007 and also translated Mann’s play “Still Life” for the Avignon Festival, has re-established a long-time connection with Mann for this refreshing. They have something going here, but it isn’t comedy. While artistic license allows them to toy with Williams’ original vision of life among these egregiously asinine Southern folk, as well as the one reflected by Kazan on the screen, I suspect that those who love the film will miss seeing the outrageously droll sexual encounters that made the film such a delight. There is a darker underbelly to the plot and to the plotters now that severs the outright outlandishness and the outrageous silliness that particularly served the film so well.
Baby Doll, as played winningly by the very pretty blonde and curvy Susannah Hoffman, is indeed prepared to ignite the smoldering flames in the two men who lust after her. However irresistibly seductive is this air-headed 19-year-old virgin bride, she is determined to stay that way until she is 20 — when she has promised Archie Lee Meighan, her brutal — and equally brainless — husband and owner of an antiquated cotton gin, that after two years of waiting he will be allowed to consummate their marriage.
At the same time Baby Doll is being playfully but also blatantly stalked by the very sly Silva Vacarro (Dylan McDermott), the handsome 30-something Sicilian who owns a rival neighboring cotton gin and whose unsettling arrival and presence at the house is tantamount to a pending eruption of Mount Vesuvius. He has reason to suspect that Archie (terrifically performed by Robert Joy) has burned down his cotton gin during the night.
It isn’t that McDermott, who gives an impressively macho performance abetted by his riding crop, cigar, and an open shirt front, isn’t a male figure worthy of Baby Doll’s interest. McDermott, memorable as Tom in the Mann-directed “The Glass Menagerie,” seems a bit uncomfortable in his role. A big obstacle to his stealthily executed foreplay with Baby Doll as well as the furtive mind games he plays with Archie is that the heavy Southern drawl and demeanor he has affected are closer in spirit to old Southern gentry rather than that of an earthy, passionate Sicilian immigrant.
It’s a pity that the film’s infamously sexy “swing scene” in which Silva makes his well-calculated moves on Baby Doll comes off as static, awkward, and anything but erotic. The best scene in the play involves the frantic Baby Doll and the increasingly desperate Silva in a high-speed game of hide-and-seek that takes them on a wild romp through the entire house ending up in the hazardous attic. It’s beautifully directed and should get even better with more performances. It’s also one of the few scenes that does not compromise the original plot’s inherently funny contrast of social status, culture, and ethnicity.
Thank goodness, however, for the visceral fury and feelings of frustration that propel Archie and make Joy’s performance the dramatic cornerstone of the play. There is also much to admire in veteran actor Patricia Connolly’s touching performance as the amusingly dotty, hymn-singing Aunt Rose Comfort, who is poorly treated and makes regular trips to the hospital to visit dying patients she doesn’t know just to eat their chocolates. Except for Archie’s violent outbursts, the general mood under Mann’s direction is, perhaps as it needs to be, languid. But just let a real live chicken wander in from the wings and you’ve got yourself a real scene stealer. Perhaps we needed a few more of those intrusions in this tepidly titillating romp in Williamsville.
Baby Doll, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, October 11, Wednesdays and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturdays 3 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Tuesday, October 6, at 7:30 p.m. $25 to $90. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.