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"Creve Coeur' not a dandy, not a dud

Published Sep. 26, 2005

The excellent cast of man-hunting women helps showcase Tennessee Williams' technical mastery.

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur is, in many ways, a typically flawed Tennessee Williams play _ long and drawn out, overwritten, hopelessly sentimental. Modern-thinking women will shudder at its premise.

But no matter. People who love theater will sit through almost anything by Williams. Oh, they might draw the line at some of the real clinkers, of which the prolific playwright wrote plenty, especially during the 1960s _ the "Stoned Age," he called it in his memoirs _ but his mix of dreamy nostalgia and hardheaded realism defined a crucial strand of mid-20th century American drama.

Creve Coeur, now playing at American Stage, is not top-level Williams, but it is not a dud, either. It has enough of his repertoire on display to suggest why he matters. And for better or worse, that importance is all wrapped up in his famous female characters, of which this 1979 play is virtually a crash course.

It's also a comedy, with Williams seeming to deliver a sly wink from time to time that cautions against taking anything too seriously.

At the center of the play is Dotty, one of Williams' patented desperate romantics, waiting for the gentleman caller who never comes. "I've got to find a partner in my life, or my life will have no meaning," she says.

Played by Susan Alexander, Dotty is a "marginally youthful but attractive" Memphis belle relocated to St. Louis in the 1930s. She is a civics teacher whose virtue has been compromised by her school's roguish principal.

Three other women revolve around Dotty, including her German roommate, Bodey (Carolyn Zaput), a bulky, good-hearted soul. She wants to fix Dotty up with her brother, a superior prospect for matrimony in Bodey's opinion, given that he has made a down payment on a Buick and cut back to eight beers a day.

Bodey squares off against Helena, a social-climbing teacher who wants Dotty to move in with her. Despite her resemblance to a "well-dressed snake," Helena (Tricia Matthews) is not totally unsympathetic. "There's nothing lonelier than a woman dining alone," she laments.

Providing slapstick relief is Sophie Gluck (Bonita Agan), an upstairs neighbor who speaks only German and gives Williams an opportunity to work in some bathroom humor.

If Creve Coeur is less than sublime and has a contrived ending, it still shows off the technical mastery of Williams. Like his closest (and widely differing) counterparts, Chekhov and Neil Simon, he shifts the narrative focus from exposition to addressing the audience in natural, effortless fashion.

Bickering dialogue segues into atmospheric soliloquies, such as Dotty's revery on a rainy night of sex in a roadster or Bodey's fond account of taking the open-air trolley out to Creve Coeur, a lakeside amusement park.

American Stage deserves credit for bringing attention to the little-seen Creve Coeur. Williams was a writing machine, and there are riches yet to be discovered among the many plays that came after his last commercial hit in 1961, The Night of the Iguana.

The danger in any Williams production is the tendency to +verplay his women, but Alexander and the rest of the excellent cast find the right comic balance for the most part. Director David Munnell does allow some of the business with Sophie to go over the top.

Jeffrey W. Dean's set is a persuasively stuffy apartment, though it's less garish than the "nightmare of clashing colors" decried by Helena. A strategically placed plate of crullers _ Bodey's term for doughnuts _ tempts playgoers on their way in and out of the theater.