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No picnic

Tennessee Williams' Creve Couer better left on the shelf

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Tennessee Williams spent his formative years in a St. Louis apartment much like the setting of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Couer, one of his last plays. He first and most vividly evoked that part of life in his classic memory play The Glass Menagerie, with his mother Edwina and sister Rose immortalized as Amanda and Laura Wingfield.

Williams' domineering mother and sheltered sister were archetypes for his female characters throughout his career. For Couer's four-woman cast, it's as if Williams took Amanda and Laura, shattered them like glass figurines, and reshaped them to make two new characters out of each one. (Stone Mountain's ART Station is currently presenting Menagerie with a fine cast.)

It's the nature of writers to return to their lives and their obsessions as raw material for their work. Directed by new Associate Artistic Director Kent Gash for the Alliance Theatre, Couer finds the playwright varying his favorite subjects, putting more broad humor (no pun intended) into a bittersweet premise. But mostly, Couer seems a pale reflection of Williams' earlier ventures.

The Alliance production offers an immediate cue that Couer takes place in an off-kilter, comic world by putting the entire set at a steep tilt, like a Titanic stateroom after the ship struck the iceberg. It's a 1930s efficiency apartment shared by two unmarried women: hard-of-hearing "Bodey" (earthy Sonja Lanzener) and idealistic, high-strung Dorothea (Genevieve Elam).

Williams' plays typically involve the building up and tearing down of dreams, and Bodey and Dorothea each have aspirations representing deeper desires. Bodey wants to take Dorothea and her brother on a picnic to Creve Couer park, hoping to fix them up with one another and live vicariously through them. But Dorothea, hoping to receive a gentleman (telephone) caller, fusses at Bodey to keep the line clear.

This particular Sunday morning the apartment receives an unexpected, unwelcome visitor in Helena (Felicity La Fortune), a snobbish social-climber who has business with Dorothea. Innately suspecting that Helena plans to steal Dorothea away, Bodey becomes a gruff gatekeeper, refusing to inform Dorothea of the woman's arrival and enduring the interloper's disdain at Bodey's unrefined manner and tacky taste.

The oddest member of the quartet is upstairs neighbor Miss Gluck (Heather Robison), who speaks little English and has been mentally unstable since her mother's death. Peering through Coke-bottle glasses, the child-woman is prone to hide weeping behind chairs when upset.

The actresses all have at least one amusing performing signature or bit of business. La Fortune has an imperious sniff and clipped delivery, like the kind of swell Groucho Marx delighted in tormenting. Robison's Gluck has the physicality of one of those spastic misfits of "Saturday Night Live," although it's unfortunate that the character gets little time in the spotlight. Some of the humor simply doesn't work, with a diarrhea gag and a mention of premature ejaculation seeming like the would-be "shocking" material Williams put in his plays during his declining years.

As Dorothea, Elam spends much of the first act doing "calisthenics, swivels and bust development exercises." But Elam can be vivacious to a fault, seeming too young and fresh for Dorothea, who sees a future in the country club sharpie she's been consorting with. The audience should sense that the unseen bachelor represents her last chance to escape spinsterhood, but Elam's Dorothea seems to have plenty of prospects ahead of her.

Couer originated as a one-act play in the 1970s, and judging from the Alliance production, it probably belonged at that length. The relationships between the four women are so simple and quickly conveyed that the story doesn't so much develop as draw out, becoming rather tedious, like a family function that goes on too long. Williams finds some poignancy in how each of the women long to escape from loneliness, but the stakes seem small, the stuff of anecdotes instead of a full-length drama.

Next to the acutely angled set, the most memorable aspect of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Couer is its smell: Bodey fries an actual chicken in a skillet, filling the theater with the mouth-watering aroma. The Alliance's Couer has original scents, sounds and sights, with the light cues, working like cinematic close-ups, proving quite effective, if hardly subtle. But its substance seems all too familiar if you have a passing acquaintance with the playwright.

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Couer plays through Nov. 4 at the Alliance Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., at 8 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 2:30 and 8 p.m. Sat. and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sun. $18-$57. 404-733-5000.

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