The Night of the Iguana

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Photo: Joan Marcus Review
If you ask most people their thoughts about Tennessee Williams’ 1961 drama, “The Night of the Iguana,” they’ll likely regale you with memories of the star-studded 1964 film version (headlined by Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr) and then admit they never saw any of the show’s four Broadway outings. For that reason alone, fans of the master dramatist should be grateful for the new stage production by La Femme Theatre Productions, now being presented at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Directed with understanding (if not much subtlety) by Emily Mann and featuring a superb central performance by Tim Daly as the very troubled ex-priest T. Lawrence Shannon, the show could easily benefit from a couple of more weeks of performances, letting all the actors the chance to fully settle into their roles. And no matter when or if you go, it’s a big decision whether to sit through this bear of a work, running nearly three hours of almost non-stop talk.

What’s all the chat about? Set in September 1940, “Iguana” focuses almost exclusively on the spiritual battle for Shannon’s heart and soul. Having been thrown out of his one church early in his career – for heresy (in one fiery sermon) and having sex with a young teacher – Shannon has spent the past decade escorting lonely women on tours around the world (fornicating with many of them), drowning his sorrows, and burning his proverbial bridges.

While on his latest tour in Mexico – during which he has slept with 16-year-old musical prodigy Charlotte (Carmen Berkeley), much to the displeasure of her “butch” tough-as-leather guardian Judith (Lea DeLaria, perfectly cast) – Shannon endures yet another nervous breakdown and seeks to find solace (or at least rest) at a local hotel run by his friends Fred and Maxine Faulk. (The simple but evocative unit set is by the great Beowulf Boritt.)

As it turns out, though, Fred has recently died, and the sexually voracious, love-starved Maxine (portrayed with great gusto by Daphne Rubin-Vega) wants nothing more than for Shannon – whom she may sincerely love -- to forget about returning to the priesthood, give up his current adherence to sobriety, and stay with her to help manage the property.

What stands in her way is twofold: Shannon’s genuine crisis of conscience – one can feel a slightly disheveled, world-weary Daly almost literally battling his personal demons – and the unexpected presence of itinerant artist Hannah Jelkes (Jean Lichty, the company’s founder, in a respectable turn), a nearly 40-year-old virgin living a hand-to-mouth existence aside her 96-year-old grandfather, a minor poet called Nonno (played by Austin Pendleton in one of his trademark quirky turns).

Hannah – who has been portrayed previously on stage by such legendary stars as Margaret Leighton, Jane Alexander and Cherry Jones – is a tricky role to pull off. While she practically revels in her New England spinsterhood, there’s definitely a physical spark between her and Shannon -- one that goes unconsummated -- as well as an intellectual one. Indeed, a large part of the play’s third act has the two characters go “mano a womano,” as it were, as Hannah tries to save Shannon from himself. And while we can be pretty sure what will happen, Lichty just isn’t a strong enough match for Daly -- or even Rubin-Vega, whose Maxine will take any steps required to get what she wants

Perhaps it was the decision of the Williams’ estate, or perhaps it was Lichty’s doing, but the play would also be better served by the erasure of some repetitive dialogue as well as the elimination of hotel guests Herr and Frau Fahrenkopf (Michael Leigh Cook and Alena Acker), a pair of annoying entitled Nazis, whose presence adds little to the proceedings. (PS: They’re not in the movie!)

After all, even in an ideal production, “Iguana” is already a long night’s journey into night!

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 12/17/2023
Closing 2/24/2024

Theatre Info
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036