‘Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf’: Angst, slow pizza and fast laughs at Writers
“Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf” by Tim Ryder and Tim Sniffen, at Writers Theatre through July 31. ★★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Never mind the arcane title of the play, “Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf,” which, yes, seems familiar in a vaguely disconcerting way. You know you’re face to face with existential authenticity the moment Blanche Dubois’ voice drops an octave, plunging as if into a steamy bath of lurid sensuality.
From there, it becomes a challenge for every viewer, a game of dicey drama in the closeting black box at the new Writers Theatre: Can you continue to breathe, and not fall out of your seat, while laughing convulsively at this mad mashup of riffs on classic characters and iconic tropes from a clutch of celebrated American plays?
I admit to clipping the title a bit. Full length, it’s “Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody,” a riotous 70-odd minutes co-contrived by The Second City stalwarts Tim Ryder and Tim Sniffen, written by Sniffen and co-directed by Stuart Carden and Writers artistic director Michael Halberstam. It’s rare stuff, and ladled out by a committed cast playing characters who probably should be.
A mysterious invitation has brought them all to a house in New Orleans – a place once owned by Big Daddy of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” fame. (The narrator, there to “over-explain everything” and played with folksy charm by Sean Fortunato, recalls that Big Daddy lived in this place his whole life until his son’s homosexuality gave him cancer.)
Hot from Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” come Blanche (Jennifer Engstrom, who all but steals the show) and Stanley Kowalski (Michael Perez, who keeps changing into a different freshly sweat-soaked T-shirt and striking provocative poses).
Also joining the fun are the lovebirds from Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” George and Martha (John Hoogenakker and Karen Janes Woditsch, scotch glasses ever in hand, mutual resentment simmering), along with the dependably expiring Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” – the most depressing man in recorded history, says the narrator: feckless, cheerless, indeed deadpan in the person of Marc Grapey.
The better you know the source plays, the funnier the gags that tumble over each other at wry speed. And often as not, it’s the spins on the actual lines that bring the biggest laughs. Inevitably, Martha is going to blurt out, “What a dump!” and then wonder aloud what movie that line is from. What you can’t see coming is Blanche’s helpful riposte.
The narrative – well, OK, there is no narrative – takes a hysterical turn when the gang decides to order dinner in, but makes the mistake of dialing Godot Pizza (Fortunato in another turn, and not his last). Ah, the many faces of Fortunato. Wearing yet another hat (just a figure of speech), he pops in on George and Martha – to stir their drinks, as it were.
Stanley takes all the guys bowling, and in an eruption of testosterone – with an invisible bowling ball and some high-intensity sound effects – threatens to wreck the place. If you don’t have the urge to duck through this sequence, you must be secretly scanning your cell phone.
Willy, who is astonished when Blanche actually buys something from him, spots a rifle mounted on the wall. (Will Willy come back for it later? My lips are sealed.) Grapey’s sad sack is the only character on stage who sucks laughter out of you by just standing there.
This smart, all-in, over-the-top romp is dotted with peak moments, and everyone will have a favorite. Mine? The appearance out of left-field (literally stage left) of Tom Wingfield from Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” out on the fire escape to muse – in the form of Michael Perez, morphed from Stanley — on the constraints and disappointments of his life.
And there to explain to Tom, in two words, the root of all his angst, are George and Martha, eavesdropping from next door as they sip from ever-resupplied glasses. I could share their pithy analysis with you in nine keystrokes – 10 if you count the space. But you will recall the rifle mounted on the wall. I see Halberstam, that gun in hand, blood in his eye, looking for me.
For the answer, buy a ticket to the show. Happily, Writers has extended the run to the end of July. It’s a lark, a carnival ride – a streetcar ride – not to be missed. In a word, and I feel the sweat spreading through my T-shirt as I type, it’s “STEL-LAR!”
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
Tags: A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Death of a Salesman, Jennifer Engstrom, John Hoogenakker, Karen Janes Woditsch, Marc Grapey, Michael Halberstam, Michael Perez, Sean Fortunato, Stuart Carden, The Glass Menagerie, The Second city, Tim Ryder, Tim Sniffen, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Writers' Theatre