An insecure Tennessee Williams, “suffering from the disaster of success” after the overwhelmingly rapturous response to his first major play, “The Glass Menagerie,” worries about the reception that will greet his next work, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
“What if they think I reached for the stars and missed?” he sighs.
It’s the summer of 1947 and Williams and his partner Pancho Rodriguez are ensconced in a beach house in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. “Streetcar” is about to go into rehearsal with Jessica Tandy playing the key role of Blanche Dubois and John Garfield tentatively cast as Stanley Kowalski.
Enter Marlon Brando, upstage right. He has been sent by Williams’ friend, iconic director Elia (“Gadg”) Kazan to audition for the part of Kowalski. Brando is nonchalant, and three days late for the audition.
Thus begins the encounter of the titans, as imagined by playwright Gregg Ostrin in his new play, “Kowalski,” now having its world premiere at the Two Roads Theatre in Studio City.
“What I have dramatized is not so much what happened that night, but, knowing the characters involved, what could have happened, “ Ostrin says.
But, as director Rick Shaw cautions, Brando at 23, and Williams at 36 were not the legends they later became. This play depicts them before they became the people “we imagine we know … filtered through the gels of time and myth.”
Ovation Award winner Curt Bonnem plays Williams with a wry sophistication. He has played Williams before, in the comedy “Carved in Stone,” and he fits the role like a soft slipper.
As “just about the best looking young man I had ever seen,” Williams’ first impression comment about Brando, Ignacio Serricchio fills the bill nicely as well. He isn’t a Brando look-alike, but he is good to look at anyway. And he comes on soft-spoken and shy, as one would imagine Brando might have been at that stage of his not-yet-flamboyant career.
But he is sly enough to flatter Williams, while pretending indifference to the outcome of the audition, and Williams is alternately attracted and annoyed as Brando digs under his (Williams’) skin and extracts a level of intimacy that Brando then matches with incidents from his own life. Is he sincere or is he “playing” the playwright?
Director Shaw keeps up the pace as the two men verbally spar with each other, and their conversation is clever, convoluted, and captivating — and imaginatively manipulative.
Two women play critical roles in the drama. Alexa Hamilton plays Margo Jones, the theater director and producer from Dallas who was an early supporter of Williams, and Sasha Higgins plays Jo, the young woman Brando has brought along, ostensibly for the ride. Hamilton, who looks very much like Margo Jones, plays her with a lazy Southern drawl, which is a little strange for a woman who spent almost all her time in Texas. Higgins, however, is spot-on as she delights in the flirtatious advances of her “friend Tom,” as she calls Tennessee.
“Kowalski” is an intelligent, provocative and highly entertaining theater piece and very much worth a jaunt to Studio City. The Two Roads Theatre is a charming venue at 4348 Tujunga Blvd. in Studio City, and the play will be running there every Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. through Sept 4. Call (818) 762-2282 or visit www.tworoadstheater.com for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.