'Baby Doll' joins the cavalcade of L.A. productions marking Tennessee Williams' centennial (updated)
Stepping up with the latest announced revival is the Elephant Theatre Company, which won’t be presenting one of Williams' plays, but rather a staging of his Academy Award-nominated screenplay for the steamy 1956 film, “Baby Doll.” The show will run Nov. 11-Dec. 14 at the Lillian Theatre, with Joel Daavid directing.
Williams’ script revolves around a struggling Mississippi cotton mill owner (played on screen by Karl Malden) who chafes while waiting to consummate his two-year marriage to the maddeningly flirtatious teenage bride (Carroll Baker in the film) who insists on waiting until her impending 20th birthday. Enter an Italian immigrant business rival (Eli Wallach, pictured with Baker) whose designs on Baby Doll are both sexual and financial.
Williams’ screenplay, decried at the time as filth in some quarters, expanded on his 1946 one-act play “27 Wagons Full of Cotton.” For you theater trivia buffs, a then-unknown Meryl Streep played Baby Doll in a 1976 Broadway staging of the play, earning a Tony nomination while “lolling and luxuriating in her body as if it were a warm bath,” as a Village Voice reviewer put it. Well, her body, with a hidden assist, given that Williams’ script specified a zaftig one for Baby Doll: “I was very fat,” Streep recalled for Ms. Magazine a few years later. “I had all kinds of padding and prosthetic breasts.”
Kondazian (pictured at right), a veteran of many a Williams role, once related to The Times the rather remarkable tale of her first meeting with the playwright in 1978, when she was playing the lead in “The Rose Tattoo” at the Beverly Hills Playhouse –- the role for which Magnani won the best-actress Oscar in the 1955 film of Williams’ play.
"We were at a luncheon honoring Tennessee hosted by the L.A. Drama Critics Circle, and he kept staring at my cleavage. He asked me at one point, 'Could I touch them?' and I let him. He then joked, 'Can I have them gift-wrapped?' I was so disarmed that I laughed and we became fast friends. He told me that any of his plays were mine to produce.”
Angelenos with an immediate hunger for theater à la Williams can turn to “Five by Tenn,” an evening of one acts running through May 1 at Theatre 68 in Hollywood, “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale,” in repertory through May 28 at A Noise Within in Glendale, or Williams' final play, "A House Not Meant to Stand," through May 22 at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.
Updated April 11, 11:15 a.m.: A previous version of this post omitted "A House Not Meant to Stand" as a currently-playing production of Williams' work.
-- Mike Boehm
Photos: Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach in a scene from the 1956 film "Baby Doll." Karen Kondazian. Credits: file photo (`Baby Doll'); Iris Schneider/Los Angeles Times