Starting Jan. 5, a good-looking, sweaty, mostly-naked couple will be performing for crowds inside a Midtown hotel room (instead of through the windows at The Standard). That night marks the premiere of Tennessee Williams’ Green Eyes, a powerhouse one-act being performed for the first time ever in New York, in a suite at the Hudson Hotel. Stop rubbing your eyesyou’re reading this right: The play is staged in an actual hotel room, with only 20 tickets sold each night. This is a show with an entire semester in juvie’s worth of rough sex packed into half an hour, and it’s going to get hot in there.
Written in 1970 on the eve of Williams’ coming out as gay ("I covered the waterfront," he coyly told David Frost that year), Green Eyes went unpublished for decades. Never workshopped in Williams’ lifetime, the script is a string of scratchy drafts compiled by editors. But then, so is the Bibleanother raunchy classic. Director Travis Chamberlain, whose resum includes his current gig as public programs coordinator of The New Museum, got his hands on the play in 2008 through involvement with the Target Margin Theater’s "Unknown Williams" Festival. A smoldering read-through in March at the Bushwick Starr garnered pleasurable buzz. Now, as part of P.S. 122′s COIL Festival, Green Eyes serves as half of a Williams retrospective celebrating the centennial of his birth, alongside a month-long series of panel discussions curated by Chamberlain for the Museum of Art and Design entitled The Kindness of Strangeness.
Green Eyes’ setting is a hot and humid New Orleans boudoir: Mr. and Mrs. Claude Dunphy have just been wed during Claude’s leave from the army. We open on the morning after, as a seriously intoxicated
Mr. Dunphy interrogates his bride about her fresh bruises and scratches, and her possible adultery the previous night.
"She’s in the best mood of her life, and really sore at the same time!" says Chamberlain. "There’s a Genet element to their sexuality: She begins playing the role that he’s cast her in." It’s an S&M love story, one that scholars speculate may have been inspired by Williams’ own relationship with his abusive lover, an ex-soldier in the playwright’s employ.
"I describe it as Williams unbarred," Chamberlain explains. "Everything that would happen off-stage in his classic plays, such as Stanley raping Blanche [in A Streetcar Named Desire], all of that physicality takes place onstage in real time."
Green Eyes is a turning point for Williams, penned at a time when critics were deeming him self-destructive for his public vice and for renouncing stylistic trademarks of his earlier work. It’s also a violent response to both the Vietnam War and the pressures Williams faced to come out. The result is a bold satire of the alleged normalcy of male-female matrimony, declaring that a heterosexual bedroom can also be a deviant one. "We’re working to reclaim Williams as a pivotal member of the queer avant-garde," notes Chamberlain.
The play’s title is in reference to the lens through which a shell-shocked soldier sees, and indeed the show’s sound and lighting design throws its audience into a war zone. "[Mr. Dunphy] needs an exorcism for the mutilation going on inside of him," says Chamberlain. "She’s helping him through their extreme sexual activities. It challenges the gray area between sadomasochistic desire and domestic violence."
For boundary destruction like this, Chamberlain needed a force of nature. He first saw lead Erin Markey in Tina Satter’s Family at the Ontological Theater two years ago, before directing her in the one-woman show Puppy Love: A Stripper’s Tail. Markey is notorious within the New York performance art world for darting from hilarious to terrifying, taking audiences to the brink before letting them up for air. Today, Markey looks the part of Mrs. Dunphy. Three red lines on her neck suggest claw marks; her voice is a low-but-never-dull roar, her gaze wide and unrelenting.
"I knew her to be someone comfortable with extreme material," says Chamberlain. "It’s easy to read the play as a victim narrative. Our take was that [Mrs. Dunphy] wanted it, and was in control. She’s a lion-tamer who can whip him in a way that’s good for both of them. It became important to show this as an act of love, not of self-destruction."
Markey was thrown into the play’s scantily clad setting moments after the show was cast, when her co-star Adam Couperthwaite stripped naked for their bedbound publicity photos. "Everybody likes to be asked to get naked, but volunteering is a different story," says Markey. "There was enough champagne to facilitate."
Fearlessness unites Markey to Mrs.
Dunphy. "I feel psychologically close to the character," says Markey. "I don’t want to use the word manipulative, because it’s too pejorative, too easy to understand her as a villainess. She knows what she wants, but it’s slutty and sort of a cultural faux pas. I’m at ease with seduction, having been trained as an actor and having been a sex worker in the past."
Mrs. Dunphy’s lair, that Hudson Hotel abode, differs some from thosew found in N’awlins. It’s tighter (always a plus), with no balcony; a high rise that would tower over the six-room love nests that once lined the French Quarter.
"The idea of the piece is to be site adaptive," notes Chamberlain. His team plans to do a "suitcase tour," staging the work in other hotels throughout the country, if not the world.
Within such cozy quarters, the action may well erupt into the audience. "I think of it like Willy Wonka, where everyone gets their golden ticket," adds Chamberlain. Markey chimes in: "It’s The Polar Express!" But let’s not forget what film noir and bachelorette parties have taught us: some wild, scary stuff can happen in hotel rooms. "It upsets the ritual of going to the theater, and sets a bar: You must be this comfortable to ride this ride," says Chamberlain.
Here Chamberlain, Markey and Couperthwaite master the selling of sex and violence: make it sound a little dangerous and watch the audience get turned on. Just don’t say they didn’t warn you about all that friendly fire getting banged out between the sheets.
Through Jan. 23,
The Hudson Hotel,
356 W. 58th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.),