'The Night of the Iguana' review — Daphne Rubin-Vega shines in Tennessee Williams drama

Read our review of Tennessee Williams's The Night of the Iguana off Broadway with Tim Daly, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Lea DeLaria, Austin Pendleton, and Jean Lichty.

Kyle Turner
Kyle Turner

New York’s winter weather is on the warmer side this year, mid- to high 40s, but still chilly enough for city dwellers to prepare themselves with jackets and scarves. The atmosphere of Emily Mann’s revival of The Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams appears to be nearly 60 degrees higher, so sweltering that everything feels like molasses. People are bored and crazy and at their wits’ end (reminiscent of the real world?) at the little resort in Acapulco, Mexico — “the front door to South America-and the back door to the States,” the owner, Maxine (Daphne Rubin-Vega), says — where defrocked priest T. Lawrence Shannon (Tim Daly) tries to find refuge.

Maxine’s hotel is a kind of no man’s land, the porch set design (by Beowulf Boritt) creeping out into the audience to give a sense of perspective. On this diamond-shaped strip of ground, Shannon, his tour group full of religious ladies, and the older and unmarried Hannah (Jean Lichty) and her dying father (Austin Pendelton) escape the world and look for meaning. The play as written unfolds almost in real time; we watch the precarious, almost combustible relationships between these people slowly mutate over one night that, in this 3-hour play, stretches on. And on.

Trying to inject new blood into Tennessee Williams is an unenviable task; the master dramatist shook the theatre world with shows like A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, about people’s grave need to hang onto their illusions and delusions, his language illustrating the lengths people will go to avoid the reality of their situations. Which leaves two ways to do Williams: the predictable way, with a slavish dedication to the supposed rhythms the page dictates; and the surprising way, where an actor (and director) unearths something new in the words and the sounds.

Most of this production is the former. Daly’s Shannon is competent, but his jittery gruffness doesn’t leave enough room for sympathy, and it’s not exactly crazed enough to insert a sense of exciting theatricality in the midst of the more human (and maybe more banal) crisis of faith and sanity. Lichty’s Hannah, in comparison, is soft, gentle, perhaps prudish. She is supposed to be tender where Shannon is prickly, serene where he is sweaty. But her dramatic dilemma — her loneliness and the way in which her clear-eyed belief in connection contrasts with Shannon’s failure of faith — feel a bit undercooked. Her performance is reminiscent of Mia Farrow in Woody Allen movies, with the timbre of Jane Fonda’s voice, but without the forcefulness. Between the pair, there isn’t enough thrust, even if it’s to get through the evening with one’s scruples or heart intact.

The exception is Rubin-Vega, who takes Williams’s words and makes them her own. With a flick of her finger or the application of her voice that sounds like papaya and chile, Rubin-Vega grabs your attention. She is cunning, sad, as desperate as anyone else, yet still holding it together. She’s clever and provocative, sexy and slick. She doesn’t see the cadence of Williams’s language as an obstacle; she sees is as a chance to blend taste, sensibility, and style. In single, small phrases, she conveys the complexity of the words and of her character with an effortlessness that feels both at home in Williams’s world but new and modern at the same time. Just when it feels like the evening will be inert, Rubin-Vega keeps the night bright with possibility.

The Night of the Iguana is at the Pershing Square Signature Center through February 25. Get The Night of the Iguana tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jean Lichty, Tim Daly, Austin Pendleton, Alena Acker, and Michael Leigh Cook in The Night of the Iguana. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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