BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
A hitherto unknown play by Tennessee Williams, who worked on it until his death in 1983, “In Masks Outrageous and Austere” is a piece best left to literary scholars -- or even better left in the vault.
Given its world premiere at Culture Project, where the production opened on Tuesday, the two-act drama is revealed to be a messy WTF confabulation of familiar themes and characters that the great playwright handled more effectively in some of his previous works.
Briefly, the feverish situation centers on Babe (Shirley Knight), an aging, substance-addled billionairess, her Southern boy toy of a husband (Robert Beitzel) and his lover-secretary (Sam Underwood), who have been shanghaied to an undisclosed beachfront estate, where they are minded by a sinister trio of Ken Doll-type bodyguards.
There they stew on the terrace, trading paranoid suspicions and betraying various loyalties.
Others in the mix include an aria-warbling neighbor wearing high couture (Alison Fraser), her mentally-challenged teen son (Connor Buckley), Babe’s unhelpful secretary (Pamela Shaw) and a studly grease monkey (Christopher Halladay). Appearing briefly in video cameos are Babe’s doctor (Austin Pendleton) and the chief executive (Buck Henry) of the petro-chemical conglomerate from which the heiress derives her fortune. Several of these characters are murdered by the time the play ends.
The point of everyone’s voluble talk and machinations pretty much goes missing in this surreal mash-up of “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” and “The Red Devil Battery Sign.” Snatches of eloquent writing sporadically appear but not sufficiently to make the play worth seeing.
Director David Schweizer’s busy production has been over-designed with blazing video and lighting effects. Babe’s more torrential speeches tend to wind Knight, but she always lends the lady an overblown grandeur. Sporting a desperate smile and a finger veil, a cooing Fraser confidently postures through her character’s eccentricities. The remaining performances, unfortunately, are terribly weak.
Exhuming “In Masks Outrageous and Austere” does no service to the memory of Tennessee Williams or the cultural legacy he left to the world.
“In Masks Outrageous and Austere” continues through May 26 at Culture Project, 45 Bleecker St., New York. Call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.cultureproject.org.