Review: A Lack of Passion Keeps This ‘Orpheus Descending’ Earthbound

Clad in a snazzy snakeskin jacket and carrying a guitar, Val Xavier steps into a small town’s mercantile like a handsome troubadour dropping by to serenade the locals. But he is a stranger whose car has broken down, and in the South of the 1950s, the local women are going to talk and the local men might just stalk.

And then there is Lady Torrance, who runs that dry-goods store and whose interest is piqued by the new arrival.

A few minutes into Tennessee Williams’s “Orpheus Descending,” we know that emotions will run operatically high. Or at least they do on paper, because Erica Schmidt’s revival for Theater for a New Audience, which opened Tuesday at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn and stars Maggie Siff as Lady Torrance, is maddeningly earthbound. The word “melodramatic” is usually deployed in a pejorative way to suggest an affected, exaggerated fervor designed to draw attention, or to describe something that defies conventional rules of propriety. But it is that heightened exaltation that makes Williams’s work glorious, and it is woefully missing in this cautious, bloodless production.

“Orpheus Descending,” which had a short Broadway run in 1957, is not among Williams’s most famous pieces; critics tend to place it on the B list. The play, a reworking of “Battle of Angels,” from 1940, is a bit of a rambling mess, but it is also passionate and fascinatingly peculiar — the plot is loosely inspired by the story of Orpheus, after all.

That mythical figure is Val (Pico Alexander), and it’s easy to see why he fascinates Lady (Siff). She is dressed in black when we first see her, but she is not, technically speaking, a widow: Her older, tyrannical husband, Jabe (Michael Cullen), has cancer and is hanging on by a thread spun of bile and loathing. For most of the play, Jabe is heard rather than seen, making his presence felt by imperiously knocking on the floor of the couple’s quarters, which are above the store.

Like Val, Lady is different, which also puts her at odds in the community. She is Italian, for starters — though Siff’s bizarre accent is Sicilian by way of Eastern Europe — and she is also burdened by a tragic past: Her father was killed in a fire set by the Ku Klux Klan for selling alcohol to Black people.

Williams writes that Lady “verges on hysteria under a strain,” but Siff (best known for the Showtime series “Billions”) evokes neither. Siff’s ability to project composure and intelligence was central to her terrific performances in two previous Theater for a New Audience productions, “The Taming of the Shrew” (2012) and “Much Ado About Nothing” (2013). Here it is a hindrance, as she can’t quite give in to the forces pressing down on Lady. Siff imbues the character with a convincing inner strength — the life force is evident — but less clear is the fact that Lady is stuck in a hell that is within and around her.

It might have helped if Siff had a sturdier partner, but Alexander’s wan emo sensibility lacks the haunted charisma of a sexy drifter attempting to move on from his past. When Val tells Lady, “I lived in corruption but I’m not corrupted,” Alexander is much better at suggesting the second part of that sentence than the first. But the role needs both. (The 1960 film adaptation, “The Fugitive Kind,” starred Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani, which gives an idea of the intensity the play should aim for.)

Tonally the production is similarly unmoored. The play alludes to fantastical elements, as with Val’s entrance, which looks as if he had been manifested out of thin air by Uncle Pleasant, a character who is also referred to as “conjure man” (Dathan B. Williams), or when Jabe’s baleful pounding sounds like the emanation of an enraged poltergeist. But Schmidt (“Mac Beth,” the musical “Cyrano” starring Peter Dinklage) does not exploit those opportunities. Also failing to make an impact is the outsize, fascinating character of Carol Cutrere (Julia McDermott), a lost soul who staggers in and out of the play in runny eyeliner, and is a key third outcast in the story.

Amy Rubin’s atmosphere-free set does not help: If the store is meant to be a representation of hell on Earth, its blond wood, neat interior and tidy lines make it feel more like a furniture shop in a hip Hudson Valley town.

Occasionally, Lady and Val wander to liminal spaces off to the side of Torrance Mercantile but still within view of the audience. There is a beguiling mystery to those brief scenes, allusions to life and love outside the bounds of the infernal prison. Oh, what could have been.

Orpheus Descending
Through Aug. 6 at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn; Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

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