To the best of my knowledge, Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer” last appeared on Broadway in 1995 in a double bill under the umbrella title “Garden District.” It shared the program with “Something Unspoken,” a rare but delightful play that last only 35 minutes. It is worth mentioning only to remind you of the days when it took at least two one-act plays to comprise a full and satisfying evening of theater. It was produced by the fondly remembered Circle in the Square.
The currently esteemed and also non-profit Roundabout Theater Company is presenting only the more famous of these two plays. The evening, without an intermission, and excellent as it is, lasts about 80 minutes. It seems that short evenings are currently de rigueur, despite our grumbling about the cost of a ticket. Based presumably on the symptomatic increase in short attention spans, the public seem to have approved this trend. This is only to say that adding the gentle and humor-streaked “Something Unspoken” to the program would have added something immeasurably special. It would have balanced the mood of the deeper world of “Suddenly Last Summer” while also giving us a wider and richer perspective of life in the Garden District, where “Suddenly Last Summer” is set.
“Suddenly Last Summer” is most famous for its film version, which paired Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor. Their pairing provided the play with an almost regal air of stature. Even so, this may well be the least likable of all Tennessee Williams’ plays. It seems to hover on the brink of the suggestive but never quite plunges into the abyss of the downright obscene. It is, however, discomforting enough. Most of it is sub-poetic exposition and principally a set-up for a very long monologue. In it, a nasty — make that ghoulish — bit of family decadence surfaces. Mrs. Venable (Blythe Danner), a semi-invalid living as it were in a state of denial, is more conspicuously maintaining the garden, a primordial-themed habitat (lushly created by designer Santo Loquasto) that was nurtured by her late son cum bogus poet.
Like the insect-devouring but slowly dying Venus Fly Trap left in her care, Mrs. Venable is prepared to entrap and dispose of the one person who threatens her world. That person, her niece, is in a position to desecrate her memories of her homosexual son’s depraved life and gruesome death that she has conveniently distorted. Danner is an actor who oozes class and, when necessary, class distinction. Danner’s affectations of graciousness are as blistering as are her indications of ruthlessness, as the venomously aggressive Mrs. Venable. Try to keep your eyes off her as she unsteadily stalks the perimeter of the garden in a stylishly stunning orchid-colored frock designed by Loquasto.
Notwithstanding the distorted truth as Mrs. Venable sees it, is the more shocking and tenable truth as it spews from the emotionally distraught and physically threatened Catharine (Carla Gugino). Gugino, whose performance in Roundabout’s production of “After the Fall” earned her a Theater World Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut, plunges with consummate and resourceful skill into the famous and demanding monologue in which she nervously recounts the events that led up to her cousin’s horrible death, with an unwavering verity.
As played with appropriately disarming objectivity by the comely Gale Harold, the character of Doctor Cukrowicz (insinuatingly called Dr. Sugar by Mrs. Venable) serves as interference between the vindictive Mrs. Venable and Catharine. A sizable donation to the doctor’s research program is a distinct possibility, pending the doctor’s decision to perform a lobotomy on Catharine. Additional conflicts relate to Catharine’s crass mother (Becky Ann Baker), and her mercenary brother, George (Wayne Wilcox), who stands to lose an inheritance depending on that decision. Karen Walsh is fine as the ordered-about housekeeper, Miss Foxhill, as is Sandra Shipley, as the no-nonsense Sister Felicity, who has accompanied Catharine from the most recent of many institutions where she has been committed, sedated, and under observation. The play has been committed to director Mark Brokaw (“The Constant Wife” for Roundabout), who, at the very least, makes sure no one appears sedated. **
“Suddenly Last Summer,” through Sunday, January 21, Laura Pels Theater, 111 West 46th Street. $63.75 to $73.75. 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org.