Willie & Esther, at the Hattiloo Theatre, isn't an easy play to describe because nothing actually happens. Willie plots and schemes, then Esther plots and schemes, then Willie plots and schemes some more. That's about it.
James Graham Bronson's script could be a romantic comedy if your definition of romance includes criminal intent and petty squabbling. It could be described as a slice of social realism about love and life in America's poorer neighborhoods, but the play's over-the-top slapstick undermines that theory too. Although the plot — if you can call it a plot — revolves around a bank robbery, the only thing that gets stolen is a toaster oven, so it's not really a crime drama either. In many ways, Willie & Esther reflects the theatrical sensibilities of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot but without the metaphysics. Yet all this nothingness adds up to an evening of theater that's more engaging than it should be based on its pieces and parts.
Willie, a nominally employed schemer with a gift for bullshit and braggadocio, wants to rob a bank. Esther, an infertile beautician who fears life is passing her by, is Willie's companion of nine years. She's more grounded in reality and doesn't think this is a good solution to the couple's long-term financial needs, but she wants a wedding ring and loves Willie enough to give anything a whirl if only a clever enough plan can be devised. The plan, however, remains elusive. The couple can't even decide how much they can steal without incurring God's wrath.
Precious J. Morris makes Esther tough without being a tough. She's also sweet without being saccharine, and she's trusting without being naive. It's a commendable performance in a production that doesn't seem like it was quite ready to open. J.S. Tate's take on Willie is more forced, and the exaggerated facial tics he's given his character are artificial and condescending.
Tony Anderson is one of Memphis' most consistently satisfying performers, as comfortable with the biting social commentary of Athol Fugard's Master Harold ... and the Boys as he is with the fluffy comedy of Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Willie & Esther marks Anderson's directorial debut, and the details he brings to his own characters are reflected in the work of Morris and Tate. He's been less successful getting his characters — Willie in particular — to listen and respond, and in a play this intimate, that's crucial. The set, designed by Ekundayo Bandele, is perfunctory at best, providing nothing in the way of tone, texture, or sense of place.
Through January 24th
Party at Playhouse
On Saturday night, following an introductory speech by Playhouse on the Square's executive producer Jackie Nichols, a familiar vamp rang out from a lone piano and Mark Chambers, a beloved Memphis actor now living in San Francisco, emerged from the audience in a black corset and heels, belting out the lyrics to "Sweet Transvestite." It was a fitting christening for Playhouse, considering that the theater's antecedent, the Circuit Players, was one of the first American companies to produce The Rocky Horror Show. The 350-seat auditorium was filled to near capacity by appreciative actors, directors, designers, and techies who had come to party, explore Playhouse on the Square's new state-of-the-art facility on Cooper at Union, and toast Nichols, the company's visionary founder. But just below the party's festive surface, there was a pronounced sense of heartbreak and hope.
Pippin, which opens in the new space on January 29th, was supposed to feature Nichols' 24-year-old son Jordan in the musical's title role. On January 3rd, however, the younger Nichols — a gifted actor, singer, and dancer — fainted while visiting with friends and cast mates at the Blue Monkey after the evening's rehearsal. His heart had stopped without warning. CPR was administered, and he was revived and has since been fitted with a cardio defibrillator. Nichols will be succeeded in the role of Pippin by Alvaro Francisco, a former Playhouse intern who has been seen in Memphis productions of Romeo & Juliet and as the performing understudy for Jesus Manuel Pacheco in The Light in the Piazza.
"Something like this shows you your real priorities," said Jackie Nichols, prior to his speech at Saturday night's Playhouse party.
Nichols' address was greeted with an extended standing ovation.