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Williams’ ‘Sweet Bird’ Set to Fly in London

June 15, 1994

LONDON (AP) _ The heat is on this summer at the Royal National Theater, stoked by another revival of a Tennessee Williams play.

″When Clare (Higgins) and I are on, you just wouldn’t want to be in the same room with us,″ says leading man Robert Knepper. ″You can almost smell the sex from the night before, it’s so potent.″

The play is ″Sweet Bird of Youth,″ Williams’ lyrically sweaty portrait of lust, love and political zealotry in the deep South. Premiered on Broadway in 1959, the drama pits men against women, an aging film star against her fickle fans, and a young gigolo against the ravages of time, the fiercest enemy of all.

The original production - and Richard Brooks’ subsequent 1962 film - starred Geraldine Page as Alexandra del Lago, whose chosen pseudonym as the Princess Kosmonopolis cannot restore her lost grandeur.

Paul Newman was the first Chance Wayne, the princess’ kept man, whose return to his Southern roots leads to psychic and physical dismemberment.

Higgins and Knepper inherit the starring roles for a June 16 opening in the three-theater complex’s midsized Lyttelton auditorium.

The director, Richard Eyre, has made something of a cottage industry out of American work, and Williams in particular. Two years ago in the same theater, he staged a wrenching ″Night of the Iguana,″ restoring the rueful wisdom to what is perhaps Williams’ saddest play.

His 1993 ″Suddenly Last Summer″ for the BBC brought together Maggie Smith, Natasha Richardson and Rob Lowe in a Gothic slice of Southern wiles.

Eyre’s enthusiasm dates to his adolescence in rural Dorset in southern England.

″When I started getting interested in the theater, I was reading (Arthur) Miller and Williams in particular,″ recalled Eyre, 51, who is also the National’s artistic director, ″And the British stuff seemed incredibly etiolated.

″To my perspective, when ‘Look Back in Anger’ (John Osborne’s groundbreaking British play of 1956) came along and I was 13 and reading that at last the British theater had fangs, I thought, ‘Hang on; we’ve already had ‘The Rose Tattoo,’ ‘Orpheus Descending’ ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’

″It struck me from my remote corner of Dorset how extraordinarily hermetically isolated the theater was in Britain, and that was before I ever went to the theater.″

In place of ″Sweet Bird of Youth,″ Eyre originally had thought of reviving Williams’ best-known play, ″The Glass Menagerie,″ with Maggie Smith.

That production never happened, but Eyre insists ″Sweet Bird,″ in his words, represents no ″faute de mieux″ - no second-best substitute.

He called the play a flawed masterpiece, adding, ″You look for plays that have life.″

According to Eyre, his version may be truer to Williams’ original intentions than director Elia Kazan’s Broadway production.

″I’ve always suspected Kazan did a lot of surrogate writing,″ Eyre said of the play, which went through five separate drafts. Among the elements to emerge differently this time is the issue of Chance passing on a venereal disease to Heavenly, the daughter of the corrupt politician Boss Finley.

″On Broadway, Chance was guilty of infecting her unambiguously,″ said Eyre.

Eyre is using a later draft in which Chance and Heavenly go to a party where she is gang-raped. That, said Eyre, ″vastly changes his culpability.″

He auditioned some 20 New York actors for Chance, who would be allowed to work in England on an exchange with the actors’ union, Equity. (The swap is with Kenneth Cranham, the Briton now starring on Broadway in the National’s acclaimed production of J. B. Priestley’s ″An Inspector Calls.″)

His choice was Knepper, 34, who has appeared off-Broadway and in regional theater and played an Englishman in the low-budget film, ″Gas Food Lodging.″

In a separate interview, Knepper said the role allows him to express ″the feminine side in me, the neurotic side, the child.″

″My original conception was that if Paul (Newman) played it, Chance must have been really cool,″ the actor said. ″In fact, there’s nothing cool about him. The part is about turning his foibles inside out and not trying to hide them.″

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