First Nighter: The Acting Company's Irresistible 'Desire', Max Posner's Completely Resistible 'Judy'

It was Margot Harley, just leaving her lengthy tenure as The Acting Company producer, who came up with the wonderful idea. She thought it a good idea to adapt six Tennessee Williams short stories for the stage. Now the collection, Desire, is at 59E59 Theatres, with Michael Wilson capably directing.

Truth to tell, adapting the tales isn't an entirely accurate description of the tasks undertaken by, in order of their presentation on the two-act bill, Beth Henley, Elizabeth Egloff, John Guare, Marcus Gardley, David Grimm and Rebecca Gilman.

"Inspired by" is closer to the mark, since merely dramatizing what Williams wrote would have seemed more like transcription and would have put the involved playwrights into competition with Williams.

Take Guare's "You Lied to Me About Centralia," the first of the two outstanding entries here. No surprise that he would want at least one degree of separation between the story he took on, "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," and his view of it.

Indeed, Williams himself adapted the story (written in 1943, published in 1948) calling it The Glass Menagerie. Considering as much, what would be the point of Guare's doing something Williams had already done--even though when it comes to naming plays, Guare is close to his predecessor at memorably poetic choices?

Guare introduces Jim (Mickey Theis) and Betty (Megan Bartle) at a station discussing a trip she's just made. As they converse, it becomes clear that he's Laura's gentleman caller and she's the girlfriend about whom Amanda becomes upset on learning that his charming evening stay can go nowhere. Guare also comes up with an intriguing explanation for the caller's being free for dinner: The fiancée was away on a trip. Adding to his ingenuity, he furthers imagines a twist on the nature of that trip. And that's Guare for you.

Gardley's "Desire Quenched by Touch" is a sly spin on Williams's "Desire and the Black Masseur," a disturbingly magnificent piece in its own write. In it a masseur increasingly pummels Anthony Burns, a guilt-ridden homosexual, to a macabre conclusion of the sort perhaps found nowhere else in Williams's work outside of Suddenly Last Summer.

Gardley imagines the masseur, now called Fountaine Le Grand (Yaegel T. Welch), under interrogation by New Orleans detective Michael Bacon (Derek Smith) about Burns (John Skelley), who has disappeared. Flashbacks to Le Grand's sessions with Burns are inserted while Bacon openly displays suspicion about the outcome of the massages that supposedly ended two weeks earlier. The detective discovers nothing conclusive.

Only the final scene, which reiterates the disclosure in Williams's story, fills the audience in. With it comes substantiation, surely, of Williams's own never fully unresolved wrestle with his knotted sexuality.

Henley's handling of "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin" (1948), another intriguingly morbid title, may be the closest to a strict adaptation. Though Williams mentions no names for the focal characters, they're also familiar from The Glass Menagerie, who are in their turn familiar from Williams's past.

Accordingly, Henley calls them Tom (Theis again) and Roe (Juliet Brett), who's in for Williams's unhappy sister Rose. Henley shows them pretty much as they're shown in Williams's 1948 variation on his sister's disturbed childhood.

She's presented as a possibly talented pianist whose lack of self-worth undoes her as she prepares for a recital with handsome young Richard Miles (Brian Cross) and at the same time as she's growing up too swiftly to remain Tom's cherished playmate.

Though the other three Desire plays impress more as finger exercises, there's something idyllic yet unsettling about Gilman's treatment of "The Field of Blue Children" (1939), something irresistible about Grimm's extension of "Oriflamme" (1939), in which Anna (Liv Rooth) as a Blanche DuBois type flirts with and recoils from Rodney (Smith), a Stanley Kowalski type. And there's something compulsively attractive about "Tent Worms" (1980), wherein Billy (Smith) allows his disgust to emerge over the insects populating the Cape Cod Bay rental his wife Clara (Rooth) and he are not exactly enjoying.

An added attraction of Desire (the encompassing emotion always a Williams fascination) is that it makes reading or re-reading the short stories from which the six plays are derived a temptation too strong to resist. In them the reader encounters the overwhelming descriptive powers that surface only in other ways throughout the Williams plays. Hurray for that!

*****

Judy, a Page 73 production, takes place over a three-month period in 2040 when people have stopped using four-letter words. Normally, I would cheer such an eventuality, but in this instance, that would make me a hypocrite. That's because sitting in exquisite discomfort throughout Judy, I constantly had to fight the urge to shot obscenities at the stage.

In Max Posner's obtuse work--which is directed as well as he can direct it by Ken Rus Schmoll--siblings Chris (Deirdre O'Connell), Timothy (Danny Wolohan) and Tara (Birgit Huppuch) sit at desks and look into computer screen on an Arnulfo Maldonado set meant to represent three different households.

On the occasions that they rise from their perches and from their computer-engendered stupors, they bicker with each other to no informative effect. Or with no more beneficial effect, they natter at Timothy's daughter Eloise (Frenie Ocoba) or Tara's son Kalvin (Luka Kain) or at Markus (Marcel Spears), the tech guy who drops in whenever their systems break down--which happens frequently. Sometimes Timothy addresses the unseen Judy. Sometimes Tara addresses her unseen spouse Sol--Judy and Sol being the lucky ones, since they never have to appear.

At no point does what any of them discuss make sense, which becomes an ironic joke when someone actually comments that it must take hard work to make no sense. How hard playwright Posner worked to have his two-hour-long (including intermission) drama make no sense is known only to him. But whatever the time and effort expended is, he's certainly succeeded. Maybe he's trying to say that by 2040, humanity's staring at electronic devices close to 24/7 has turned all interaction into gibberish.

Probably not, and devout Manhattan theatergoers will understand that if the always superb McConnell can't make a go of a script, there's no hope to be had.