Daniel K. Isaac (Photo: Damien Alexeev)
By Matthew Wexler
There’s a Tennessee Williams renaissance happening in New York City this spring. Classic Stage Company presents Summer and Smoke in collaboration with The Transport Group; The Morgan Library showcases “Tennessee Williams: No Refuge But Writing,” which highlights the playwright’s creative process and his close involvement with the theatrical production of his works; and perhaps the most interesting of the bunch, Abingdon Theatre Company’s The Gentleman Caller.
The new play by Philip Dawkins explores the complicated relationship between Williams and playwright William Inge. Set in 1944 before the Chicago premiere of The Glass Menagerie, Inge (who was working as a newspaper critic) invites Williams to his St. Louis apartment for an interview.
“The struggle to create while not also destroying the self in the process is one that is, I feel, as vital today as it was in the smack-middle of the last century,” says Dawkins. “Tennessee Williams and William Inge have both been such major influences not only to me but to so many others who I count as my mentors and theater-heroes. As a Midwestern playwright myself, I take the responsibility of holding these powerful queer voices from the middle of America as a great and powerful honor.”
Abingdon’s artistic director Tony Speciale helms the piece, featuring Daniel K. Isaac (Showtime’s Billions) as Inge and Juan Francisco Villa as Williams. The non-traditional casting adds another layer of interest and complexity to Dawkins’ work and reflects Abingdon’s longstanding commitment to “reflect our social, political, historical and cultural diversity.”
The Broadway Blog had a chance to chat with Isaac at the onset of the rehearsal process. The Gentleman Caller plays May 5-26 at Cherry Lane Theatre.
The Broadway Blog: What was your audition process like for The Gentleman Caller?
Daniel K. Isaac: Philip’s boyfriend watches Billions and they were preparing to do a reading of the play and thought of me. It was a blind offer, which means I had the great fortune of never having to audition. It’s a dream come true as the production magically moves forward.
BB: What did you know about Inge or Williams?
DI: I knew of Inge’s plays and had studied a handful, but knew more about Williams, who was more forward in his personal and professional life and notoriously very opinionated. I knew Inge was gay but closeted in some regard.
BB: You’re in the rehearsal process now — what are you discovering about these two men?
DI: We’re discovering so much. There’s an element of disguise. What is coded and what’s apparent? Early on, Philip said that Williams went everyone—nobody was off limits. But Inge is different. Little has been documented about their friendship so there are fictional liberties.
There’s also this element of creating “queer spaces” before they formally existed. Today, we can seek refuge in gay bars and clubs, sports leagues, and community centers. At least for a period of time, these two men found each other. I recently discovered a sad fact that after Inge’s suicide in 1973, his girlfriend called Williams to ask what she might need to hide before contacting the authorities.
BB: How do you think the themes of the show resonate in 2018, especially for the gay community?
DI: Williams still has the best one-liners that are as funny as an episode of Will & Grace or Modern Family. I don’t think we have universal safe spaces for burgeoning artists and the queer community. This story explores two people struggling to find that in a different environment… perhaps not so different from where some people live today—not everyone lives in gay-friendly New York City or San Francisco.
I think the play also offers a bit of hope. Yes, it’s shrouded in tragedy at the end, but we can look at their legacy and recognize that art lives on. It’s why their plays continue to be revived. Their work continues to resonate.
BB: Can you address the production’s non-traditional casting?
DI: Philip always said that while he wrote a play about two historically white men, he wasn’t necessarily interested in two white men performing the roles. It means a lot to me as an actor of color. It’s a big deal and a privilege… and should also be a new standard rather than an anomaly. Abingdon as a theater company wants to be reflective of the world and to see that in action is pretty remarkable.
BB: You’re originally from California and are now New York City-based. Much of Inge’s work draws from a Midwestern sensibility. How has that geographical identity impacted your approach to the play?
DI: I grew up in California, but much like New York State, not all of California is liberal. When Proposition 8 passed, I was devastated but not surprised. I grew up in a conservative small town and occasionally saw bigotry disguised in religion. I didn’t think I’d bring so much of myself to the role, but I recognize parallels in our past. My hope is to find the truth in what I portray. There was a sense of sadness in Inge that never went away. I count my blessings that I found my family of choice in New York City.
(laughs) My mom is in Los Angeles, begging for me to move back, buy a house and take care of her! Billions films here, though, and it’s amazing to be so close to work. Playwriting has also become an interest of mine and Philip has become a great friend and mentor, championing my baby playwright career. I’m fortunate to do both television and theater, but I love the theater and hope to do it until the day I die.
The Gentleman Caller
Abingdon Theatre Company
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
May 5-26, 2018
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.