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updated: 9/28/2012 6:31 AM

Gimmicks weigh down Goodman's 'Sweet Bird of Youth'

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  • Diane Lane and Finn Wittrock play a couple of Tennessee Williams' "monsters" in Goodman Theatre's sumptuous but unwieldy revival of "Sweet Bird of Youth."

      Diane Lane and Finn Wittrock play a couple of Tennessee Williams' "monsters" in Goodman Theatre's sumptuous but unwieldy revival of "Sweet Bird of Youth."
    Courtesy of Liz Lauren

  • Fading big screen actress Alexandra Del Lago (Diane Lane) confronts her current, much younger companion Chance Wayne (Finn Wittrock), who's trying to blackmail her into giving him a studio contract in Goodman Theatre's revival of "Sweet Bird of Youth" by Tennessee Williams.

      Fading big screen actress Alexandra Del Lago (Diane Lane) confronts her current, much younger companion Chance Wayne (Finn Wittrock), who's trying to blackmail her into giving him a studio contract in Goodman Theatre's revival of "Sweet Bird of Youth" by Tennessee Williams.
    Photo by Liz Lauren

  • Video: David Cromer on "Sweet Bird"

  • Video: Backstage at Goodman's SBOY

  • Video: "Sweet Bird of Youth" montage

 
 

Sometimes more is less.

For confirmation look no further than Goodman Theatre's highly anticipated revival of "Sweet Bird of Youth," Tennessee Williams' second-tier play from 1959 about lost love, fading beauty, vanishing youth and last, desperate chances.

David Cromer, an accomplished, insightful director, made lasting impressions when he helmed "A Streetcar Named Desire" at Writers' Theatre in 2010 and The Hypocrites' 2008 revival of "Our Town." He demonstrated then, as he does here, that he has no shortage of ideas. Some of them are quite compelling: like the weary, alcohol-ravaged image of a movie star flickering 50 feet in the air against an undulating curtain; or a politician's frenzied, hate-filled speech projected newsreel-style during a nightmarish political rally.

The problem is, the production strains under the weight of them.

It's as if Cromer, in his Goodman directorial debut, felt compelled to use all of the theater's considerable resources. The result is a gorgeous but overstuffed, uneven show, the excess of which threatens to overshadow not just Williams' writing and characters but the rather intriguing performances of the show's stars: Academy Award nominee Diane Lane (returning to the stage after more than 20 years) and Finn Wittrock, who made his Broadway debut this year in "Death of a Salesman."

Fortunately, that doesn't happen. And while Cromer creates a striking spectacle (with help from designer James Schuette, whose set is gorgeous), I relished even more the magic he works with Lane and Wittrock, whose scenes make "Sweet Bird of Youth" soar.

The show opens with a gossamer curtain parting to reveal a plush hotel room just before dawn on Easter Sunday. Sitting amid rumpled pink silk sheets in a king-size bed is Chance Wayne (Wittrock, whose performance starts out good and becomes great), a fine-looking gigolo from the wrong side of the tracks whose demeanor suggests a man consumed by vanity and desperation.

He has returned to his hometown on Florida's Gulf Coast with an aging film star in tow to show up his enemies and win back his former love, Heavenly (Kristina Johnson), daughter of local bigwig Boss Finley (John Judd), who wants Chance gone.

Beside him is the comatose Alexandra Del Lago (Lane, in a grounded, shrewdly balanced portrait of smarts, toughness and vulnerability), an aging film star who goes by the alias Princess Kosmonopolis. We meet her as she begins to emerge from the booze and drug-fueled stupor she has maintained since the premiere of her latest film, her less-than-auspicious attempt at a comeback which she believes has put the final nail in the coffin of her waning career.

He's 29 and eager to make a splash in Hollywood. He figures a Hollywood actress with studio connections can help. She's forty-something (not old, just not young anymore) and facing the end of her career. She figures a handsome young man, some vodka and hashish will help ease the sting.

Meanwhile, heavyweight politico Boss (Judd in a volcanic performance as a bile-spewing racist) prepares to run the long-despised Chance out of town, with help from his thuggish son Tom Jr. (an explosive Vincent Teninty). In a play populated by "monsters," these pillars of the community are the most deadly.

Chance's shot at salvation, or at least self-preservation, comes from women, of course. Lane's savvy Princess invites the increasingly desperate man to leave with her, insisting "there's no more valuable knowledge than knowing the right time to go." Penny Slusher's kindly Aunt Nonnie echoes those sentiments. Even Boss' longtime mistress Lucy (the terrific Jennifer Engstrom), a onetime admirer, encourages him to get out while he can.

The tension reaches a fever pitch in the third act, where Cromer's expressionist excess is most pronounced. Set in the sumptuous brass and marble lobby of the Royal Palms Hotel, the action unfolds on a revolving stage, suggesting lives spinning out of control. The gimmick effectively serves the harrowing, hallucinatory scene depicting Boss' nearly riotous political rally. But more often than not it proves distracting. Moreover, the movement obscures action taking place upstage, something which Keith Parham's muddy lighting does little to illuminate.

Ultimately, Cromer's concept overwhelmed the material. The tepid response from the audience on opening night, suggests I wasn't alone in thinking so, and wishing for a little less.

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