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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

perhaps

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

over-indulgent.

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

improbable

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.

Accustomed

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

politician

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

screen),

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

flamboyant

characters that inhabit them, Michael Schweikhardt’s settings for

the three-act play appear removed from life even as they are

incontestably

tangible. They are the best of the season.

— Simon Saltzman

Sweet Bird of Youth, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival,

36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600. Plays through November 22.

$23 to $35.


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