Playwright: Tennessee Williams. At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets: 1-312-443-3800; www.GoodmanTheatre.org; $27-$88. Runs through: Oct. 28
Virtually every Tennessee Williams character is corrupt and hypocritical. His heroes and heroinesfrequently social outsidersacknowledge their corruption and attempt to redeem themselves, while insiders and power-holders do not acknowledge their moral degeneracy. Williams isn't really interested in corruption by money and power. Rather, it always comes down to sex and love in his plays. Sex corrupts, love transfigures and you rarely have both together.
Sweet Bird of Youth centers on sexually alluring Chance Wayne, a 29-year-old gigolo returning to his Gulf Coast home town with an aging movie star with Hollywood clout, Alexandra Del Lago. Chance antagonizes almost everyone and then sacrifices himselfin a literal physical senseas a form of redemption when he realizes he has destroyed his one pure love, the aptly named Heavenly Finley, daughter of powerful political boss Tom Finley.
Chance Wayne, however, isn't easy to like. He's a self-destructive romantic who pours oil on the fires he lights, a man of ample worldly experience who nonetheless remains naive to common sense. But he does understand and accept his hypocrisies, unlike Boss Finley and his thuggish followers. (Set in the Deep South in 1959, Finley also represents hard-core racist views.)
The play also opens with an hour-long getting-to-know-you waltz between Chance and Del Lago, requiring audiences to focus intimately on two characters before you even know them or meet any other important figures. This is a good way to lose an audience.
Hot-button director David Cromer keeps his audience because he has real-life stars Finn Wittrock and Diane Lane as Chance and Del Lago, displaying their ample legit acting chops in sharp performances. Wittrock takes Chance's self-absorption and detached reality to scary-but-riveting heights, while Lane smartly underplays Del Lago without making her weak. In Del Lago, the manipulative Wayne has met his match and she knows it before he does. Lane need not act the diva to make the point as "monster meets monster," as Del Lago puts it.
Beyond his leads, Cromer tackles Sweet Bird in his usual singular manner. He moves a scene from Act II to Act III, uses non-realistic instantaneous lighting changes to isolate actors or turn day to night, and dwarfs characters in James Schuette's massive, semi-realistic sets. The results are vivid but cold.
Adjusting the act structure allows Cromer to use intermissions to separate the outsider hypocrites (Chance and Del Lago) from the insiders (Boss Finley and gang) with great intellectual clarity. However, clarity ain't emotional warmth. Schuette's mostly white scenery amplifies the chill. Although airy (no solid walls), the size and classical forms of doorways and windows, coupled with a sweeping metallic cyclorama, suggest sepulchral marble. These characters are entombed, which may be a proper judgment.