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Goodman Theatre’s “Sweet Bird of Youth” never fully takes flight

Diane Lane stars as Princess Kosmonopolis opposite Finn Wittrock as Chance Wayne Tennessee Williams’ 'Sweet Bird Youth' directed by David

Diane Lane stars as Princess Kosmonopolis opposite Finn Wittrock as Chance Wayne in Tennessee Williams’ "Sweet Bird of Youth," directed by David Cromer at the Goodman Theatre.

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When: Through Oct. 28

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $35-$90

Info: (312) 443-3800;

Updated: October 26, 2012 6:07AM

Perhaps the best way to think about director David Cromer’s wildly uneven production of “Sweet Bird of Youth” — the much anticipated revival of Tennessee Williams’ play at the Goodman Theatre — is to imagine the blurry, unfocused state of mind that comes with a serious hangover. Clarity becomes the casualty of too much alcohol, too many uppers, too much hashish, too much unrestful sleep.

The great, gauzy white curtain that envelopes the stage certainly enhances this sense of haziness. The broken eyeglasses belonging to one of the characters underlines the sense of disorientation. Brief, hugely magnified film sequences — of a Hollywood-style close-up, or a political rally on television — create a further self-deluding, hallucinatory effect. So does the revolving set of a lavish hotel lobby and bar that sets the head spinning.

To be sure, Cromer is exploring lots of ideas in this production as he turns a play that might be close to impossible to do as pure realism into something of a fever dream that highlights both Williams’ poetic flights and the story’s extremes of personal and public exposure, of celebrity haze and political fakery.

But too often the whole experiment turns into the echo of an overheated B-movie of the 1950s, and unintentionally exposes what many consider Williams’ messy excesses. The production’s erratic rhythms (including the first of two intermissions that break the flow but obviously are required for a set change) are frustrating. And the propulsion needed to drive the story to its horrific climax never quite coalesces.

Of course the primary lure of this production is its two stars. Film actress Diane Lane, in the role of faded Hollywood star Alexandra Del Lago (traveling incognito as The Princess Kosmonopolis), demonstrates she has forgotten nothing about acting in the theater, despite a long absence from the stage. Finn Wittrock (fresh from the Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman”), has fine moments as Chance Wayne, the gigolo hellbent on achieving his own movie stardom, as well as retrieving his great adolescent love.

The interplay between these two is far from romanticized here, and it is intriguing on many levels — most notably for the strong sense that they are complete strangers to each other, united primarily by their need for certain transactions. Hers are emotional and physical; his are purely material. In many ways theirs is a battle for the survival of the fittest, and just who is the fittest, or most resilient, turns out to be quite surprising. Clearly Williams saw himself as a perfect hybrid of both these characters.

The story begins in a grand bed in the Royal Palms Hotel in St. Cloud, a balmy Gulf Coast town whose name echoes the filmy state of mind here. The uneasy occupants of that bed are Princess and Chance, who have been traveling through the South in her Cadillac for several days.

She believes her attempted film comeback has been a disaster and hopes that sex with Chance will briefly bring her back to life, even as the drugs, and all the rest, will dull her pain. He, desperate about lost youth and possibility at the age of 29, sees the still-connected movie star as his last-chance ticket to success. This need to be special has fired him ever since his “wrong-side-of-the-tracks” roots kept him from marrying his true love, Heavenly (Kristina Johnson, a poor casting choice), the daughter of a powerhouse dad, Boss Finley (John Judd, all hot-blooded vulgarity as the classic demagogue and hypocrite).

A racist politician with his own “hillbilly” roots, Finley ran Chance out of town once, and he and his brow-beaten son, Tom (Vincent Teninty), are even angrier at him now. But Chance is on a downward spiral anyway, eventually turning down the helping hands of the Boss’ “mistress/whore,” Miss Lucy (Jennifer Engstrom is sensational, as is her dress), of Heavenly’s adoring Aunt Nonnie (the ever-splendid Penny Slusher), and finally, the Princess herself, who is only part self-professed “monster.”

Lane, who grows better as the play unfolds, is a fascinating mix of delicacy and steel. She can look like a tiny bird when, wrapped in a sheer, dove-gray peignoir with cuffs of airy feathers, she stands at the window. But she also can quickly turn into a ferocious snapping turtle when her reputation is at stake. Del Lago has obviously learned many Hollywood power tricks.

Finn, beautiful to look at, is not quite on top of his role yet, but he is exceptionally good when locked in reverie. His biographical “audition” — spoken when Del Lago is at her vanity table applying makeup — is beautifully done. And he is all bad-boy arrogance when he strides across their bed.

The sets, by designer James Schuette (who also designed the costumes) are impressive, but they also are a continual distraction. And combined with the uneven acoustics at the Goodman, they often render Williams’ all-important language garbled or lost.

Cromer might be on to something here, but the production (unintentionally, I think) turns out to be more tabloid brashness than dreamy reverie. And without the full force of Williams’ poetry — always the great redemptive force in his plays — something is missing.

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