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Only seekers of the semi-obscure need to scurry down to the Pearl Theatre’s space on St Mark’s Place, where Lillian Hellman’s play Toys in the Attic is being given a rare revival. Although the title plants us upward, toward mementos of childhood happiness, it is more nearly to the basement, and the relics of adult disillusion, that the work should be consigned.
And yet there is a near-perverse fascination to be had hearing the cadences of Hellman’s late style, if only to see how even she, America’s most famous 20th-century female playwright, succumbed to the allure of Tennessee Williams’s hothouse rhetoric. Of course, Hellman was already the toast of Broadway – The Little Foxes, her best-known play, debuted in 1939 – when Williams was still a desperate unknown just hatched from home, but by the time Toys opened, in 1960, he had become king of the hill.
While Toys had roots in Hellman’s childhood, in New Orleans, where the play is set, it is easy to see in its whiff of incest and waft of miscegenation the influence of Streetcar’s conductor.
Hellman saw herself more like Chekhov. In Toys there are sisters, if only two, who yearn for escape. Carrie and Anna Berniers live in a house to which their brother Julian comes calling. He brings his young bride, Lily, whose mother, Albertine, conducts an illicit relation with a black servant, Henry. Domestic complications ensue.
The Pearl revival’s director, Austin Pendleton, has a feel for sacred Southern monsters: he knew Hellman herself, having directed a production of The Little Foxes on Broadway for Elizabeth Taylor.
The cast here includes the Albertine of Joanne Camp, who is considerably more accomplished than her stock designation as a Pearl Theatre stalwart suggests, and Sean McNall as the dreamer Julian. For her minimalist finesse, Robin Leslie Brown, as Anna, has drawn the attention of some critics; Rachel Botchan’s Carrie struck me as strange – all repressed lust – but more compelling. ★★☆☆☆
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