Bryan Batt’s journey of self-discovery, ‘Dear Mr. Williams,’ is funny, poignant
By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
In one of the pivotal scenes of “Dear Mr. Williams” in which Bryan Batt discusses his journey towards becoming a noted performer on Broadway, he imitates the voice and persona of Kitty Greenberg, z’ll, the former assistant to the head of school at Isidore Newman School. He recalls Greenberg saying she had been watching him since he was a youngster and that she believe he was a truly gifted actor.
She implores him to take on a Tennessee Williams role in one of her school productions and also advises him to stop trying to be an athlete. “Lose the soccer ball,” she says.
Thank goodness he took her advice.
Batt also mentions his youthful therapy sessions with Dr. Max Sugar, z’ll, and says of his unlikely name (“Dr. Sugar”): “You can’t make up stuff like this.” Again, the advice he received from the psychiatrist also seems to have been integral in his finding his way in life, despite the challenges of being a young gay man.
Developed and workshopped since its inclusion as part of the 2018 Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival, these two very real Jewish characters play a part in “Dear Mr. Williams,” a personal journey written by its star. “Dear Mr. Williams” reveals the twin arcs of the playwright’s life as he first arrives in New Orleans as a young man in his twenties to achieve his dreams of becoming a writer and that of the actor, who leaves his home in New Orleans at nearly the same age to achieve his dreams of becoming an actor in New York City.
With the loud blare of a locomotive train arriving on the tracks of a 1939 New Orleans railway station, we first see Batt as Tom Lanier Williams, the writer who would soon assume the nom de plume of Tennessee, an intentional act on his part to distinguish himself from his earlier, more restricted life.
An exuberant Williams expresses his pleasure at the freedom of this new, foreign city with it many opportunities. “Here, surely, is a place i was destined for,” he announces to the audience.
Williams famously wrote “A Streetcar Named Desire,” his first Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama, only a few doors down from the Le Petit stage at 632 1/2 St. Peter Street, a fact which Batt acknowledges. There is simply no getting away from the pervasive influence of Tennessee Williams throughout the entire French Quarter.
But, as famous as Williams was to the American theatre scene with works like “The Glass Menagerie” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (another Pulitzer Prize winner), the Batt family also proved to be major influencers in the City That Care Forgot, too. The Batt family had been the developers of Pontchartrain Beach, the local amusement park at the lakefront that served as a major source of family entertainment.
Batt’s parents are seen as two large silhouettes on either side of the stage. These convey both their importance to him as a child growing up with his older brother as well as their major influence on shaping his life. He describes his mother as the ultimate genteel Southern lady, who first exposed him to theatre on a trip to New York. His father was a businessman who, as a parent was much more rigid. He also was, like the character of Brick in Cat on a Hot tin Roof, a hopeless alcoholic, whose life was ultimately shortened through his continued abuse of Scotch.
It became clear to Bryan that his father connected more with his older brother, while he had a much better rapport with his mother. He describes an attempt on his part to become involved with soccer as an outlet to prove his masculinity, but ultimately and thankfully, he was drawn ever more to the stage by the works of that shadowy figure of Tennessee Williams.
While attending school, he begins to blossom as a man, but discovers his attraction to other men. It is a confusing time in his life and compounded when a male cousin makes a pass at him while driving him home one night. Batt credits the unwavering support of his mother, even during periods of her own health crises, as well as the characters placed on the printed page by Williams that helped him better cope with his search for love and his own identity.
While the subject matter may seem to be filled with gravitas, the actor has a natural affinity for comedy and gleefully assumes the stage persona of himself as a young man oftentimes throwing out humorous insights that lessen the tension in the work. He is a gifted comic actor and thoroughly charming throughout this original work. Batt relates the story of Williams’ works and his life as a gay man who was quite comfortable in his own skin with reverence and respect while connecting him to his own pathway towards self-awareness.
At the end of this poignant journey of discovery, there are few dry eyes in the audience. Williams has found his creative freedom in New Orleans, while Batt has found his freedom and a pathway to become an actor of stature on the Broadway stage. The two arcs compliment each other nicely, but not quite fully as the playwright’s untimely passing prevents what might have been a fortuitous meeting.
The brilliant direction of Michael Wilson, an award-winning Broadway and Off-Broadway director, is clearly evident throughout the performance. The actor is much more assured and at ease in talking about his own life than in previous workshopped shows. There is little doubt that Wilson is responsible for deriving the most personal of experiences from his actor and balancing them with the simple, yet effective set by Jeff Cowie and thoroughly immersive projections designed by James Lanius. Joshua Courtney’s use of lighting is most impressive, especially in the darker sections of the play. Also, the sound design by Joel Abbott brings about a greater connection with the spoken words of the solitary actor.
This is a work that is transcendent in so many ways and it is especially uplifting that it comes following the long shuttered period of the COVID pandemic. Audiences are clamoring for the kind of connections Batt achieves in telling his own struggles and channeling those of the playwright.
This show should not be missed, especially as it seems destined to reach Broadway or Off-Broadway in the not so far away future. In oh so many ways Bryan Batt is achieving not one, but two roles of a lifetime.
“Dear Mr. Williams” (100 minutes) continues its run at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré now through October 24. Tickets are available here. Showtimes are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinees are at 3:00 p.m.