Thursday, January 25, 2024

Iguana Night

"I don't judge people, I draw them," says Hannah Jelkes in Tennessee Williams's play The Night of the Iguana. The dramatist might well have been speaking about himself. Williams rarely judged his characters, but he did exquisitely draw them for his audience.

That's what we see on stage in the Off-Broadway revival of the play at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Directed by Emily Mann, the production brings together top-quality actors who embrace the characters they play in all their problematic excess.

I saw the show last night, when the cast was led by Christopher Innvar as the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, a former Episcopal priest now leading tourists through some of the seedier locales in Mexico. Innvar would seem to be perfect casting for the role. He played Albany opposite John Lithgow in King Lear, and has performed the title character in Joanna Baillie's De Monfort, as well as more recently being Kurt, the odd man out in Dance of Death by August Strindberg. Is it any wonder Mann cast such a magnificent performer in the lead of this anticipated revival?

Oh, wait. Innvar was the understudy! No matter. He nailed the character, and was particularly good in Shannon's scenes together with Judith Fellowes, the annoying matronly woman on the tour who has it out for Shannon, and with very good reason. Fellowes is unbearable, even though we know she's essentially in the right, and is played with priceless humor by Dee Pelletier, best known for her Broadway turns in the Tracy Letts dark comedies The Minutes and August: Osage County.

Hold on, Pelletier was an understudy, too! Her performance was still wonderful, though, and she and Innvar held their own with the show's headliner who did make last night's performance, Daphne Rubin-Vega. Best known as the original Mimi in Rent, Rubin-Vega, can still display her posterior in tight pants without any complaints from the audience. That's good, since she plays Maxine Faulk, the recently widowed proprietor of the hotel where the tour group is staying. Maxine rolls out her sexual charm to welcome Shannon, and the biggest wonder of the play is how he can resist her.

The answer would appear to be Hannah, the Nantucket spinster played by Jean Lichty, who seems to understand the kind of spiritual turmoil Shannon is going through in a way that Faulk cannot. Hannah is traveling with her grandfather (played by the legendary Austin Pendleton), barely scraping by through a combination of selling her artwork and showing off her grandfather as "the oldest living and practicing poet on earth."

This motley assortment of oddballs is displayed with humanity, reminding us of the importance to not judge others for their weaknesses. That's a lesson that should be learned by the German couple staying at the hotel, who represent the dark cloud of fascism that was rolling in during the summer of 1940, when the play is set.

This splendid revival is only playing until February 25, so see it while you still can.