Suddenly Last Summer, Laura Pels Theatre, New York

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The unforgettable character in the Roundabout’s moderately engaging new production of Suddenly Last Summer, directed by Mark Brokaw, is Santo Loquasto’s set. Framed by tall palm trees lurking like praying mantises, and topped by a trellis, this New Orleans house and garden belonging to Violet Venable tell us, unmistakably, that we are in a play by Tennessee Williams.

Through this hothouse creep exotic creatures. It is 1936. Mrs Venable is unhinged because her doted-on son, Sebastian, has died abroad mysteriously the previous summer, while with his hysteric cousin, Catharine Holly. The younger woman is making scandalous insinuations, much to the distress of her mother and brother.

With Suddenly’s main figures it is as if Blanche DuBois had been fractured into three pieces: a refined woman lording it over relations, an unbalanced female tortured by her kin and a poetic soul crushed by life’s cruelties.

Blythe Danner was once a fine Blanche. Her Violet is good enough to banish most memories of Katharine Hepburn and Maggie Smith. Yet even the most accomplished Violet cannot quite compete with the performer playing Catharine, who clearly has Williams’s sympathy. The doctor, played with clarity by Gale Herold, says she may be telling the truth.

Carla Gugino is logical casting for Catharine. As the Marilyn Monroe-like figure in the Roundabout’s recent After the Fall, she showed a creamy, siren- esque sexuality. Gugino delivers her concluding grand aria, about how she was nothing but bait for Sebastian to lure boys, in a sustained, edge-of-orgasm manner that is riveting.

Of Elizabeth Taylor, the Catharine of the movies, Williams expressed dissatisfaction. “It stretched credulity,” he said, “to believe such a hip doll as our Liz wouldn’t know she was being used for something evil.” Gugino does not have this problem.

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