On the night I saw a preview of Tennessee Williams’ “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel”, The 292 Theater seated only sixteen people. There were ten chairs in the “back row“, and six plump red cushions making up the “front row”– perfect for sitting lotus style. To say that the Theater‘s faithful production of the play, running through March 31, is an “intimate experience” is a major understatement. This production is so up-close-and- personal that it even lets you see right into the eyes of all the characters. And, let it be said that these eyes speak volumes! You have the wild, “too far gone” eyes of Mark (Charles Schick), an American artist who is losing his grip on reality at full speed ahead. You have the restless, hungry, and often wickedly manipulative eyes of his sexually frustrated wife Miriam (Regina Bartkoff), who is preoccupied with plotting her escape from her unhinged husband without losing his financial support. And, you also have the eyes of the character known only as “Bar-Man” (Brandon Lim), who watches all the unfolding drama from behind the bar. Limited by his servile status in the overly structured Japanese society of the time, this character is severely restricted in what he can say, even when he‘s having his crotched grabbed by Miriam or having drinks spilled all over the stage by the tremulous Mark. Like Bar-Man, the audience gets a magnified, almost voyeuristic view of all the highly emotional goings-on.
“In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel”, which premiered in 1969, is one of Williams’ lesser-known and lesser-produced works. Today, however, it is looked upon as one of the author’s more underappreciated as well as most personal pieces. Fans of the playwright will also soon realize that many of the elements of Williams’ more well-known, more popular plays are here. At one point, the major female character offers an oh-so-stylized monologue about her fear of aging and the potential loss of her beauty (“I’m fully aware, of course, that there’s no magical trick to defend me indefinitely from the hideous product of calendars, clocks, watches…”) which may remind you of the troubled Blanche Dubois of “A Streetcar Named Desire”. But vanity is only one of Williams‘ trademark themes. There’s also… desire (including sexual desires, as well as the desire for a higher social status), loneliness, and a good range of human neuroses– cumulating with full-on madness. This being from Tennessee Williams, many audience members will expect a larger than-life, passionate female character, and we have it here with Miriam — played with gusto by Ms. Bartkoff. The actor’s portrayal of the desperate housewife is dripping with vinegar… but her Miriam is often so funny that our feelings towards the character become as complex as Miriam herself. We even feel a bit sorry for the woman who’s clearly not suited for the confines of traditional marriage– much less a marriage to a husband who started out as a “shy, gifted man” and is now talking to his paintings and embarrassing both himself and his wife in public. As Mark, Charles Schick (who co-directed the play with Bartkoff), establishes an almost otherworldly presence as a tortured soul who has gone, shall we say, way beyond the accepted quirkiness that we often expect from artists. In their less showy roles, Brandon Lim and Wayne Henry are perfectly cast as Bar-Man and Leonard (Mark’s friend and art dealer) respectively. Both are given their moments to compete with their tempestuous co-stars– often when the audience least expects it!
To say that the Set Designer (Master Michael Quinn) makes the most of Theater 292’s small stage is, once again, making a huge understatement. The highly stylized set is elaborate and colorful, with the stage entirely bathed in red light. In addition, some creative directorial touches really boost “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel” as well. In the play’s program, actor and Co-Director Regina Bartkoff recalls when she met Tennessee Williams himself when he visited a Lower East Side eatery where she was waitressing. It’s good to see that over 30 years later, Williams is visiting New York City again.
“In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel” is now playing at 292 Theater, 292 East 3rd Street between Aves C and D, New York City. Visit www.292Theater.com for more information.