As a play, Tennessee Williams’s “Green Eyes’’ is not much more than a fragment - make that an exceptionally jagged shard - of an idea.
But as an experience, it is something special.
The queasy power of “Green Eyes,’’ written in 1970 but only published a few years ago, lies in its utter obliteration of the line between spectator and voyeur. That is always a blurry and subjective boundary anyway, especially when it comes to stage dramas that probe the tangled intimacies of personal relationships.
In any case, there’s no comfort zone here for theatergoers, and no theater, either. A one-act depiction of erotic and psychological combat between a pair of newlyweds, “Green Eyes’’ is performed in a third-floor hotel room in downtown Boston, a stand-in for the New Orleans honeymoon suite where the play is set.
The action unfolds several feet, and sometimes just several inches, from the eyes of the audience, which is capped at 25 per performance. Instead of being comfortably sealed off from the outside world, spectators can look out the window and see the lights of cars crawling by on the street below while an urban symphony of honks and sirens pierces the play’s periodic silences.
You’re not likely to be distracted much. Erin Markey delivers a fearless and spellbinding performance as the enigmatic young wife, and Alan Brincks is very nearly her match as the husband, a soldier about to return to a war zone, called “Waakow’’ but clearly meant to represent Vietnam.
“Green Eyes’’ is a coproduction of Company One and the New York-based experimental theater troupe the Kindness, headed by Chris Keegan. It was Keegan who produced “Green Eyes’’ in New York last year, presented by Performance Space 122, at the Hudson Hotel in Manhattan. The production at the Ames Hotel on Court Street is directed by Travis Chamberlain, who also helmed the New York production.
While “Green Eyes’’ is not remotely in the same league as such Williams masterworks as “A Streetcar Named Desire’’ and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’’ it shares with those dramas a preoccupation with the double-sided nature of sexual desire, the notion that a fierce attraction can imprison as much as it can liberate.
As with “The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame Le Monde,’’ another late Williams play that was produced in 2009 by Beau Jest Moving Theatre at the Charlestown Working Theater, “Green Eyes’’ illustrates how forcefully the playwright embraced the chance to delve into the darker regions of the human psyche once he was no longer constrained by the limitations on profanity and depictions of sexuality that held sway earlier in his career.
Everything in the scenic design (by Chamberlain and Keegan) suggests lives in disarray and an ineluctable tick-tock toward violence. A black velvet painting of a leaping and roaring tiger hangs above the bed on and around which “Green Eyes’’ takes place. A black rotary phone is to the left of the bed; an old-fashioned radio to the right plays Jelly Roll Morton’s “Jungle Blues.’’ Clothes spill from a backpack and an opened suitcase, and more are strewn about the floor.
Clothing is largely missing on husband and wife when they materialize. (This is probably a good time to mention that “Green Eyes’’ contains nudity and is restricted to age 18 and older.) Claude, clad only in underpants, dog tags dangling from his neck, is grappling with what appears to be post-traumatic stress syndrome. The sounds of war periodically crash through the hotel room, and a brief appearance by a third character (played by Sheldon Brown) underscores the war’s vise grip on Claude.
But what makes him smolder, then erupt, is the question of whether his new bride was unfaithful to him the night before, while he was boozing it up on Bourbon Street. She is covered with bruises and scratches, and, he says grimly, “I want an explanation.’’
Well, good luck with that, Claude. Mrs. Claude Dunphy (as she is listed in the playbill) proves to be virtually unknowable. Markey’s every look and utterance is open to multiple shades of interpretation.
In a verbal dance of seduction and rejection, evasion and confrontation, Mrs. Dunphy tells her husband one story, then another, about the night before. Markey’s languid, Southern-accented voice drips with insinuation, warning, promise, threat. A study in lethal ambiguity, she constantly messes with Claude’s head, and with the audience’s, too, staring for long moments at individual spectators, and appearing none too impressed.
Early on the opening night of “Green Eyes,’’ Markey walked over to a critic seated in the front row, turned around, and made it clear it was his job to unzip the back of her dress.
Being no fool, and presumably recognizing that one did not want to get on the bad side of this dangerous lady, he complied.
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.