Tennessee Williams is widely acknowledged as one of the great American playwrights, in the company of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller. He had his first success in 1944 with The Glass Menagerie. The 1950s saw a string of Broadway hits as well as many well received film adaptations. The 1960s and later years were not as kind. Williams’s last critical and financial success was 1961’s The Night of the Iguana. By the debut of The Seven Descents of Myrtle in 1968, Williams’s reputation had worn out its welcome and the work was greeted by harsh criticism and ran for just 29 performances even with a cast featuring Brian Bedford, Estelle Parsons and Harry Guardino. Somehow director Sidney Lumet managed to film the work in 1970 under the title of The Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots. The film which starred James Coburn, Lynn Redgrave and Robert Hooks was slapped with an X rating (nudity and miscegenation the probable causes) and died at the box office. The play has seldom been staged but Dance On Productions has mounted it under the alternate title Kingdom of Earth at the Odyssey Theatre.
Having seen the film (Lynn Redgrave can be forgiven anything) but never the play, this viewer was looking forward to crossing it off his theatrical bucket list. Unfortunately the best thing about the current production is John Iacovelli’s fabulous scenic design of the way past its glory days plantation home in the Mississippi Delta during a savage storm that has the mighty Mississippi River rapidly rising to take out the house and its three very odd inhabitants. Ethereal Lot (Daniel Felix de Weldon) has come back to his ancestral home to die (from tuberculosis which has left him with barely one working lung). First he has to get back a deed of ownership he signed over to his half-brother Chicken (Brian Burke) in a moment of weakness. Chicken never lets the deed out of his possession so Lot has brought home Myrtle (Susan Priver), a washed up member of an all-girl band that he married on a TV show, to seduce Chicken and steal the deed. Chicken, who keeps saying he is dark complexioned but only looks like a farmer who is usually out in the sun, is the result of Lot’s daddy’s relationship with a woman of mixed blood. Lot wants Myrtle and their children to inherit the plantation. But the more Lot coughs, the more fey he becomes and he’s not very likely to produce any heirs. But Chicken just might if Myrtle wants to survive the impending flood.
The 90 –minute no intermission script is overly melodramatic but director Michael Arabian and his cast play it pretty straight instead of embracing the floridness of their characters and the situations. By the time Lot descends the stairs for a final time, dressed in his mother’s best finery, the audience is mostly delighted the flood has finally arrived to wash everything away.
Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles. Ends Aug. 14. 310-477-2055 or odysseytheatre.com