The problem with thinking that Shakespeare was the greatest writer of all time is that, at some point, you have to rationalize his really junky plays -- King John, Timon of Athens, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure. I have the same trouble with Tennessee Williams and his huge, and hugely uneven, body of work. The difference, of course, is that Williams -- unlike Shakespeare -- had the ability to write great plays. However, Camino Real, now at Open Stage Theatre, is not among them.
It's set in the village square of an unnamed Mexican resort town, run by a malevolent hotel proprietor named Gutman. Desperation hovers, death lurks and everyone wants to leave. Wandering into the play is an assortment of fictional and real people: Cervantes' Don Quixote, Dumas' Camille, Casanova and Lord Byron. You don't even have time to ask why, because Williams introduces his leading, and oddest, character: Kilroy (as in "Kilroy was here"). He's the souped-up idealization of the American can-do, gee-whiz spirit, talking in '40s movie-dialogue clichés and written without a trace of irony.
As befits Williams, there are occasions of staggering beauty and poetry -- one of these run-down characters says, "My heart is too tired to break" -- and scenes of intense theatricality. But there are also long, dry patches where Williams slides from enigmatic to obscure to incomprehensible. I'll follow him anywhere, but he needs to mark the trail a little better than this. At just under three hours and with more than 30 characters, Camino is a mammoth piece of writing. But the play gets lost in itself and never recovers.
Still, perversely, I love Williams and can't thank Open Stage enough for going through what must have been a nightmare putting this show up. In addition to assembling this huge cast, in Beth Steinberg's colorful costumes, and the monstrous set, nicely rendered by Amy Maceyko, director Mark A. Calla probably lost years of sleep wrestling with such an extravagantly overwritten but ultimately under-developed script. That the whole thing manages to hang together is high praise.
Art Terry is all velvety menace as Gutman, David Crawford does well by Casanova's exhausted nobility, and Naomi Grodin finds and plays the laughs of the gypsy madam. Erica Highberg's turn as the doomed Camille is a deeply moving, expressive performance. And as Kilroy, Jeffrey Simpson refuses to condescend or wink at the audience. In the process, he makes something human out of, in truth, an unplayable role.
Camino Real continues through Nov. 25. Open Stage Theatre, 2835 Smallman St., Strip District. 412-394-3353