IN THE SUMMER HOUSE Written by Jane Bowles. Directed by Joanne Akalaitis. At the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, through Aug. 22.
WHEN "In the Summer House" premiered on Broadway back in 1953, it ran for a mere two months. At the time, Tennessee Williams admired it, and it's easy to see why. In its tone and concerns, it echoes his own "Glass Menagerie." Seeing the play by Jane Bowles (wife of author Paul Bowles) in its current revival at Lincoln Center, it's also easy to see why the play was a failure the first time around and is likely to be so again.
In the director's notes (always a sure sign of a laborious evening) Joanne Akalaitis explains that the play "forms a fabric like a surrealistic painting." Accordingly, great effort has been expended on the visual style of the piece, and the sets and lighting are haunting. But the story of a tortured mother-daughter relationship, set in a Spanish-style house on the southern California coast, is maddeningly elliptical. The emotional dynamics are too unfocused to have much impact. Bowles's artificial dialog ue comes across sometimes as poetical, other times as camp.
Dianne Wiest stars as the widowed Gertrude Curevas, who spends her time scheming to marry a prosperous Mexican businessman and emotionally brutalizing her daughter, Molly (Alina Arenal), because of her own unhappiness. To escape her mother, Molly seeks refuge in the summer house on the edge of the garden.
Further emotional dynamics are provided by the visiting Mrs. Constable (Frances Conroy), who is, conversely, victimized by her daughter, Vivian (Kali Rocha). Unfortunately, the ironic parallels are undercut by the production's portrayal of Vivian as little more than a spoiled brat.
Molly, in the second act, ends up in a troubled marriage; the husband, Lionel (Liev Schreiber), is little more than a cipher, but he provides Molly with her means of escape and, ultimately, the seeds of Gertrude's breakdown.
Akalaitis has directed in her usual forced style; many scenes have been elaborately choreographed, and a simple depiction of the characters sunning themselves on a beach has been staged in the form of an elaborate visual tableaux. Also, props take on too much importance as the means of providing comic relief.
Philip Glass has provided a mood score that manages to sound like every one of his previous compositions. George Typsin's stunning set design, using the full expanse of the vast stage, is highlighted by a huge tree bent in a Dali-esque manner that reflects the stunted emotions of the characters.
The performances are no help either. Dianne Wiest, extremely effective at conveying befuddled decency, delivers a mannered and overwrought characterization, and the supporting roles are filled by earnest but misguided performers. Only the dependable Frances Conroy excels. This redoubtable actress gives a tour-de-force performance that is simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious and provides a glimmer of the emotional impact that the play was meant to convey.