WELLFLEET — Tennessee Williams, essaying a sitcom? Predictably, the result was not exactly “Ozzie and Harriet.” Though his 1960 play, “Period of Adjustment,” represents the ordinarily hyper-dramatic playwright trying on a more lighthearted approach (he subtitled it “A Serious Comedy”), this work is a far cry from funny. In fact, as a reliquary for now non-PC attitudes, it’s downright disturbing.
The play begins as a tremulous brand-new bride, Isabel Haverstick (Ali Ewoldt), finds herself dumped on the suburban Memphis doorstep of Ralph Bates (James Ludwig) amid an atypical snowstorm. (Metaphor alert, the first of many — get ready for the Erector set.) It’s Christmas Eve. George (Jefferson McDonald), Isabel’s husband of 24 hours, has taken off — whether on an errand or forever, neither we nor she is privileged to know. It falls to Ralph, George’s erstwhile Army buddy, to try to comfort the discombobulated young thing. It appears that the couple’s first night together — at the dispiriting Old Man River Motel — wasn’t exactly a model of connubial bliss. In between there-theres, Ralph reveals that his marriage isn’t going so great, either: In fact, he admits to the abandoned bride, his wife has just left him.
You’d think that there might be some attraction between the desertees, and Ludwig does a nice job of balancing Ralph’s avuncular concern with an undisguised appreciation of the shapely visitor thrust into his midcentury-modern midst. (Set designer Christopher Ostrom gets the look just right, even if Carol Sherry’s costumes leap forward a couple of years). Ewoldt’s Isabel is quite appealing: cute as a button, and all eye-batting, flirty innocence when not shrieking in distress. Ultimately, Ralph takes on the function of couples counselor: He tries to get both newlyweds to overcome their mutually destructive intimacy phobias. As he puts it, employing one of his “crossword puzzle” words: “Tensions obfuscate love.”
“Tense” doesn’t begin to describe George, who has come away from the Korean War with a really bad tremor. At first McDonald (excellent throughout) seems to be overdoing it, but he’s just getting started: He can amp up alarmingly, to a full-body throttle that threatens to dislocate a limb. Is this amusing to watch? Not a whit. It doesn’t take a shrink, or a sympathetic friend like Ralph, to extrapolate why a wedding night might cause some anxiety.
Williams may have imagined himself blowing the lid off the male insecurity that underlies much macho posturing, and indeed, his sexual frankness — though expressed roundaboutly — probably seemed shocking back in the day. Now it’s just creaky, and the resolution — Ralph’s wife, Dorothea (Alyssa H. Chase, a weak fourth), returns to collect their young son’s presents — is more than a bit icky-sweet.
Whether Dorothea has indeed turned their 3-year-old boy into “a sissy,” as Ralph complains repeatedly, remains to be seen. (What was Williams thinking? As an in-joke, it’s awfully sour.) And humane as Ralph may prove himself to be, underneath the bluster, his term for the “other” kind of women — not the virginal sort like Isabel and his own initially “unattractive” wife — is simply unspeakable.
For this production, directed as felicitously as possible by Michael Unger, WHAT has used a pared-down script adapted for London’s Almeida Theatre in 2006. I wouldn’t count on seeing a Broadway revival any time soon. But the show will be reprised Sept. 27-28 as part of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. Williams got off a couple of good lines in this slapped-together bagatelle (he admitted to a biographer that drugs played a major role in its creation), but he also belabored every last conceit. It’s clumsy writing — not the best legacy with which to celebrate one of the greats.