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Review: 'Billy and Me' imagines conversations between two titans of theater

Correspondent

Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic, is a prolific writer with eclectic cultural interests. In addition to his coverage of theater in New York and around the country, Teachout is a biographer with works about Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, George Balanchine and H.L. Mencken; the librettist for three Paul Moravec operas; an arts columnist and blogger; and, as of this month, the author of two produced plays.

The first, “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” premiered in Orlando in 2011 and went on to have multiple productions, include one off-Broadway and another directed by Teachout at Palm Beach Dramaworks in 2016. The second, “Billy and Me,” is now getting its world premiere at Dramaworks, where it runs through New Year’s Eve.

That “Billy and Me,” a play about the friendship of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights Tennessee Williams and William Inge, should debut at the West Palm Beach theater is no surprise.

Producing artistic director William Hayes became intrigued when he read in an Inge biography that the playwrights had met in St. Louis while Inge was working as the theater critic for the Star-Times, and that Inge soon traveled to Chicago to see the 1944 out-of-town tryout of Williams’ breakthrough memory play “The Glass Menagerie.” Deeply moved and inspired, Inge went home and began writing his own plays, scoring four straight Broadway hits from 1950 to 1957: “Come Back, Little Sheba,” “Picnic,” “Bus Stop” and “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.”

Hayes shared his intrigue with Teachout as the two were preparing for Dramaworks’ “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” Teachout got an idea about the structure and tone of the play, and two years later, “Billy and Me” has come to life.

Staged by Hayes, the play features Carbonell Award-winning actors Nicholas Richberg as Williams and Tom Wahl as Inge, along with Carbonell-nominated Cliff Burgess as a waiter who finds Inge delectable, then as a doctor who must help pull the playwright back from the brink of death.

In his director’s note, Hayes describes the play as “a work of fiction freely based on fact.” Teachout has done his research, as well as drawing on his knowledge of the men and their work. In the end, though, he has used his creative imagination to craft a play about two great dramatists who shared an agent, a friendship and perhaps more. In other words, the Williams and Inge of “Billy and Me” are Teachout’s interpretation of the two, their conversations his invention.

Structured as a two-act memory play narrated by Williams from somewhere in the great theatrical beyond, “Billy and Me” begins on a snowy New Year’s Eve 1944. Williams, on edge about what he sees as his last shot to make it as a playwright, is waiting for Inge in the Twin Anchors, a Chicago gay bar. The unseen gents partying in another room sometimes break into ironic song — “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “One for My Baby” — but the (sometimes literal) dance between Williams and Inge is all about art born of pain.

Teachout explores the differences and similarities between the men. Williams is comfortably out, a Type A personality who lives life large and has a knack for homing in on others’ vulnerabilities. Inge is closeted, deeply conflicted about his sexual orientation and already knows he can’t handle booze.

Their wide-ranging conversation touches on the family tragedy Williams shaped into art, his worries about leading lady Laurette Taylor (who would overcome a history of alcoholism to score her final Broadway triumph in “The Glass Menagerie”) and his anxiety over the way Chicago Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy might wield her considerable power to determine his play’s future.

Williams asks Inge his opinion of the play, but Inge demurs (as critics do, Teachout knows) since he hasn’t written his review yet. Still, as 1944 turns into 1945, Williams’ charm offensive pays off as Inge yields to the seductive power of an artist who will soon claim his place among America’s greatest playwrights.

The second act jumps to 1959, as a jittery Inge is experiencing his first Broadway flop, “A Loss of Roses.” Williams comes calling at Inge’s Manhattan apartment, a chic space dominated by a painting from abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning’s “Woman” series, a work Williams openly loathes.

The two take pot shots at Hollywood, fellow theater artists and eviscerating critics, Robert Brustein in particular. Williams, now envious of Inge’s success, laments the critics’ attitude toward his more recent works and their championing of such fresh faces as Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and “Miss Edwina Albee.” After a fight and a particularly brutal suggestion from Williams, who storms out, Inge breaks down, turning to the booze and “red devil” Seconal pills that bedevil both men.

Hayes and his Dramaworks collaborators — set designer Victor Becker, lighting designer Paul Black, costume designer Brian O’Keefe and sound designer David Thomas — have given “Billy and Me” a dreamlike, highly theatrical first production that suits the play’s subjects. A ghost light (these are, after all, the ghosts of great men) sits amid set pieces stamped with the show’s title, pieces that get turned to become the bar. Inge’s swanky Sutton Place apartment is also assembled, collagelike, from the bits and pieces of memory.

Embodying Williams, Richberg gives the showier performance, mixing wit, allure and aggression. Burgess’ waiter and doctor, men played well and distinctively, become the subjects of Williams’ alpha male dominance. Richberg turns more contemplative as the narrator framing the story from the other side of life, but when Williams is in his prime, the actor is commandingly captivating.

Wahl exhibits his own kind of quiet command, drawing us deeply into Inge’s pain and self-loathing. The too-short shelf life of a career that would end tragically is foreshadowed in Wahl’s moving performance.

How much truth is in “Billy and Me”? Plenty, including a driven artist’s irresistible compulsion to write, the cost of exposing one’s inner life and, regarding a profession increasingly on the ropes in our digital age, the lingering impact criticism can have on an artist. At the same time, plenty of the play’s content is sheer invention.

But as the Williams character observes, “Even if it isn’t true, it’s got to be real.” With flights of creative imagination, “Billy and Me” creates a might-have-been relationship that becomes compelling theater.

“Billy and Me” runs through Dec. 31 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 7 p.m. select Sundays, and 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday. Tickets cost $75 (students $15, Pay Your Age tickets for theatergoers 18-40). To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.

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