Sister's keeper

Two-Character Play not one of Williams' best

Tennessee Williams knew how to corner the market on himself. He established himself as a brand name by combining Southern gothic and autobiography for some of the greatest plays of the 20th century. But in the last two decades of his life, he increasingly seemed to be imitating himself, offering the theatrical equivalent of cheap knock-offs and designer impostors.

The Two-Character Play, produced in the late 1960s in New York and London, qualifies as a late period experiment. Its two roles may be typical for the playwright, depicting a brother and sister who both lack tight reins on reality. But Williams' devices are different, putting them in both an existential limbo and a play within the play that comments on their relationship.

It's a work that irritates and intrigues in equal measure, and one can imagine CALICOproductions being drawn to the play by its very messiness, the imperfections that illuminate. An energetic and risky staging of a half-successful script, The Two-Character Play at least shows that an interesting failure is preferable to a boring one.

We meet Felice (Mike Driscoll) and Clare (Simone Jubyna) in a room that appears a quintessential Williams locale, with shabby furniture, antiquated bric-a-brac, peacock imagery and zodiac signs on the walls. CALICO even fills 7 Stages' Backstage Theatre space with the heavy aroma of incense.

Only gradually do we realize that the characters are touring actors literally waiting on a half-decorated stage for the evening's performance to begin in a cold, unspecified country. Though Felice seems the more responsible one, with Clare having a history of substance abuse, they're each delusional in their own way. The rest of their troupe agrees, having just abandoned the tour, sending a cablegram that includes the line, "You and your sister are insane."

Despite Clare's complaints and grievances, Felice insists that the show go on and that they perform his script, "The Two-Character Play." They play siblings also named Clare and Felice, who lead reclusive lives in a small Southern town following the deaths of their mother and father, who was some kind of failed spiritualist. Felice's "Two-Character Play" very nearly comes across as a Tennessee Williams self-parody.

The "real" sibling relationship influences the presentation of the "fictional" one, like two mirrors facing each other. The made-up Clare and Felice have more pronounced Southern accents, but you're never quite sure which conflicts are sincere and which are play-acting; heated arguments will be interrupted by one player asking "Line?" And not only do their limited resources necessitate improvisation, but Clare insists on editing the play in progress; standing at the piano she says, "When I hit C-sharp, that means a cut's coming up.'

Williams creates a parallel between a pair of siblings who won't leave the family homestead and a pair who can't (both figuratively and literally) leave the playhouse. Figuring out how the different elements relate, and what they say about the relationship between life and art, can be diverting, like trying to figure out a brain-teasing puzzle. But when Felice starts reciting stage directions to the audience, or Clare says, "This still seems like a performance of 'The Two-Character Play,'" the playwright seems too self-conscious about his own gimmick.

The play no doubt draws from Williams' love-hate relationship with theater life, as well as his mentally unstable sister Rose, and at times it plays like The Dresser with both parts having nervous breakdowns. The Two-Character Play has plenty of histrionics, sudden recitations in rhymed verse and pretentious speeches about cockroaches and other topics. And compared to his less profane early works, Williams in his later life never quite figured out how to make his characters swear convincingly.

Fortunately Driscoll and Jubyna, directed by Theo Harness, don't go overboard with the kind of stylized, indulgent acting you often see with unhinged roles. They're a little more convincing as the fictional Felice and Clare, seeming not quite old or exhausted enough as the acting alter egos, though Jubyna does properly convey Clare's desperation.

With a tall, toothy smile and flashing eyes, Driscoll is ideally cast in roles where he plays some kind of huckster or persuader, successful or otherwise (I can see him as one of Willy Loman's sons in Death of a Salesman). In staging The Two-Character Play, he and Jubyna both do a good kind of sales job, prompting the audience to buy more of Williams' play than we would if we only examined the fine print.

The Two-Character Play plays through Sept. 3 at the Backstage Theatre at 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Ave., with performances at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 4 p.m. Sun. $10. 404-627-6160.

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