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The Night of the Iguana

Theatre Review by Kimberly Ramírez - December 18, 2023

Jean Lichty and Austin Pendleton
Photo by Joan Marcus
You may be scrambling to book your ticket for what sounds like a hot revival at The Pershing Square Signature Center. After all, it is packed with star power: Emily Mann directs Tennessee Williams's legendary The Night of the Iguana with Daphne Rubin-Vega, Tim Daly, Lea DeLaria, and Austin Pendleton. It seems impossible to fail! Except it does, and then you're trapped in a tedious, three-hour disappointment courtesy of La Femme Theatre Productions.

Emily Mann first began directing The Night of the Iguana for La Femme in 2020, when a digital streaming presentation raised over $30,000 for The Actors Fund. That achievement occurred six years after the company's founding. Over this time, La Femme has expressed its intention to celebrate "the universal female experience" and "the diverse female experience." Its current production choice for this curiously phrased mission is equally curious, and this iteration of Tennessee Williams's The Night of the Iguana stars La Femme's Founder and Executive Director, Jean Lichty.

Lichty plays Hannah, the "spinster" who miraculously forges a non-sexual connection with the troubled tour guide Shannon (Tim Daly). Hannah stands in stark contrast to the lascivious widow Maxine, who desires Shannon to fill the void left by her late co-manager husband Fred, and the teenage Charlotte (Carmen Berkeley), who demands Shannon's hand in marriage after "making love" in Mexico City. Shannon is being charged for statutory rape by Charlotte's supervisor and "butch" vocal teacher, Judith (Lea DeLaria).

The butch, spinster, widow, and statutory rape victim are the play's principal roles for women revolving around Shannon. A former minister with a big backstory of breakdowns–spoiler alert for those who neglected their high school summer reading–Shannon was defrocked for sermonizing about God as "a senile delinquent," a point of view revealed in one of many compelling monologues on the verandah of Maxine's Mexican hilltop hotel.

And so goes the play as a vehicle for Daly's serviceable portrayal of Shannon. While his histrionics border on excessive, they are restrained by Mann's uninspiring blocking. Shannon stays standing, sitting, or hammocked center stage surrounded by women, often opposite Lichty's monotonous, wailing Hannah.

Brief, explosive performances by Lea DeLaria and Keith Randolph Smith infuse this sleepy production with a high-octane intensity, though the supporting roles still seem like shallow caricatures of how they are perceived by the principal characters rather than people in their own right. More might be expected from a 21st century revival of Williams's World War II-era drama presented on Broadway in 1961.

The clever decision to cast Daphne Rubin-Vega as Costa Verde Hotel manager Maxine enhances the distinctive cultural dynamics of this enduring, well-known play. Rubin-Vega's Maxine adds a layer of authenticity and complexity, giving voice to the local population of Puerto Barrio, Mexico–especially as she constantly code-switches to communicate with Pancho (Dan Teixeira) and Pedro (Bradley James Tejeda) in Spanish.

As Nonno, Hannah's grandfather, Austin Pendleton gives a sensitive, deeply affecting portrayal as the 97-year-old poet whose arc adheres to the composition of his last poem, always in sudden spurts of recitation and memorization.

A striking lighting design by Jeff Croiter helps to chronicle the day from scorching sunlight into an ethereal purple evening overlooking the "liquid moonlight." Darron L. West's ambient rainforest sounds extend into the audience to transport us via atmospheric audio. Croiter's and West's work converge to create brilliant moments, like the hyperrealistic thunder and lightning that brings act one to its climactic close. Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes faithfully deliver details, from Levi's to linen, as per Williams's wardrobe wishes in the original script.

To access the "jungle-covered hilltop" on which Maxine's Costa Verde Hotel sits, Beowulf Boritt situates a magnificent ramp downstage left, beyond which the rainforest and caleta are imagined. The ramp underscores the intrigue and opportunity in Williams's masterfully scripted exits and entrances. For instance, at one point Pancho dawdles while descending downhill, munching a banana before cavalierly tossing its peel over his shoulder (Williams wrote Pancho with a mango) while Maxine urges "I said run! Corre, corre!" In new contexts, it is obvious that Pancho understands but refuses to submit as her subordinate, considering their complicated relationship. This occurs shortly after Hannah first ascends the ramp to check for vacancy before wheeling her grandfather up on a majestic cane-backed high-wheel chair ("props" to prop designer Kathy Fabian). When Pendleton and Lichty navigate the ramp with this new adult "perambulator," the purchase that pushed the travelers beyond their budget, it is a grand entrance of the very predicament that will hold them at Maxine's mercy.

The staging remains so static, however, that it's difficult to get a sense of the boiling, collective desperation that keeps characters metaphorically tethered to the ends of their ropes. The titular iguana's performance delivers this, though (and so, again, does sound designer West) through a brilliant, haunting offstage lizard cry that will pierce your heart. One wonders if the rousing applause at the final curtain call–mostly for Daly, the only actor taking a solo bow in this "Femme" production–is sublimated joy for the creature finally set free. Audiences also scurried for the exit.

The Night of the Iguana
Through February 25, 2024
La Femme Theatre Productions
The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd St., New York, NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: