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Review: `Sweet Bird of Youth’
This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
November 18, 1998. All rights reserved.
Can you think of a dramatic character more fun to watch
on a stage than an over-the-top, no-holds-barred, aging movie queen
who is on the skids, on the stuff, on the run, and on the make? Forget
about the delusional histrionics of the "Sunset Boulevard"
silent screen creation Norma Desmond, and turn your attention to the
in-your-face sex, lies, and ego-driven behavior of unbalanced nature
named Alexandra Del Lago, the fierce creature of Tennessee Williams’
play "Sweet Bird of Youth." This rarely produced opus is
getting more than its due under the direction of Bonnie Monte at the
New Jersey Shakespeare Festival.
Some may find that Monte’s staging of this gloriously overwrought,
not to mention egregiously far-fetched, melodrama borders on the
More than three hours of pure emotional hysteria does take its toll,
especially when the actors, excellent as they are, are given a license
to make every posture and line count and then some. You may feel as
I do that the operatic bursts of lyricism that spring from these
characters gives an other-worldly quality and credence to what is
arguably Williams’ most sordid and spurious plot.
Fearing the worst at a preview of her latest flick, Del Lago (Judith
Roberts) deals with her growing insecurities by running away.
to the kindness of gigolos, she picks up Chance Wayne (Bill Sage),
a sex-for-sale drifter, pushing 30, with a history that includes a
stint as a chorus boy in "Oklahoma," and participation in
the Korean War. Wayne drives Del Lago back to the hometown where he
once seduced, photographed in the nude, and then abandoned Heavenly
(Victoria Adams), his then-15-year-old sweetheart. The plot spins
on Wayne’s attempt to reconcile with Heavenly and her determined
father, Boss Finley (Tom Brennan). Dad wants only to castrate the
young man who gave his daughter the venereal disease that prevents
her from bearing children.
With the Del Lago role previously empowered by such
authoritative actors as originator Geraldine Page (on stage and
and earlier this season by Elizabeth Ashley (in Washington), it is
nice to report that Roberts doesn’t replace Del Lago’s inner turmoil
and outward flamboyance with a tiresome display of mannerisms. In
a role that can be played monstrously, Roberts finds a variety of
ways to make Del Lago an almost credible human being.
And there’s no reason in the world not to buy the goods delivered
by Sage as Chance Wayne, whose virility, handsome face, and hairless
chest are exactly what Del Lago ordered. Sage’s fine performance also
gives us reason to respond to Wayne’s vulnerability.
Brennan also scores as Boss Finley, the bullying politico who is not
above using his daughter’s tragedy for political gain. Paul Molnar
is chilling as Finley’s vengeful son. Adams is poignant as the ruined
daughter Heavenly, and Kate Schlesinger can also be lauded for finding
the heart of a steel magnolia as Finley’s mistress. Like the
characters that inhabit them, Michael Schweikhardt’s settings for
the three-act play appear removed from life even as they are
tangible. They are the best of the season.
— Simon Saltzman
36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600. Plays through November 22.
$23 to $35.
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