Sometimes a play needs a grand vision. Sometimes it needs a minimal touch. But sometimes, it needs both. Josh Perl and Peter-Tolin Baker have brought both to bear on a late Tennessee Williams play “In the Bar of a Toyko Hotel,” which opens next Thursday in Bridgehampton.
Mr. Perl is the artistic director of Hamptons Independent Theater Festival or HITFest, a theater company housed in a black-box space, also known as the Naked Stage, that he created in the Bridgehampton Community House. Mr. Baker is a designer with an impressive roster of commercial and creative credits to his name.
The play is centered on Mark, played by Seth Hendricks, an alcoholic artist who is trying to revive his career with a new style of painting focused on color. “It kind of sounds ridiculous, but it’s a new discovery the way artists do. Like the Impressionists who were first laughed at, Mark is entering a new exploratory phase,” Mr. Perl said. Other characters are played by Terrence Fiore, Licia James-Zegar, and Glenn L. Cruz.
At first, Mr. Perl, who has been doing text-driven productions and readings for both HITFest and Naked Stage, thought the play would benefit from a more high-tech interpretation with moving images projected on screens as well as still images to provide atmosphere and context. At the time, he noted that the play was “probably Williams’s most honest work.” The added bells and whistles, still minimal but glitzy by Naked Stage and HITFest standards, were intended to create some magic for the piece. Now, it is the honesty that remains.
“We’re trying to realize the vision of the original piece. Kind of looking between the lines to take what is virtual and make it real,” Mr. Perl said. “It is a bit of a risk — certainly there are safer projects out there — but one well worth taking in our estimation. Art has to challenge, doesn’t it?”
Although the choreography and visual display would have been great to have, Mr. Perl said, “most often it comes down to simplify, simplify, simplify. We’re best just sticking to the text.”
It is a raw and minimal space and a “very tight, 40-page short play that runs about 70 minutes.” Mr. Perl said reviews of previous productions of the Williams play had been negative about the staging. “It is a drama with a lot of nuance and other stuff going on. These are characters who are bitter and angry from love. I don’t think people have tried to bring that out as much.”
Mr. Baker, a designer of sets, store windows, and special events for clients such as Tiffany & Co. and Henri Bendel, among other endeavors, also did display designs for Guild Hall’s “Art of Fashion” summer exhibition a few years ago. He had carried a clipping about Mr. Perl and the Naked Stage in his Jitney travel bag for three years with the intention of possibly working with him on a production design. He finally met Mr. Perl serendipitously at a dinner party in Sag Harbor less than a year ago. “I put two and two together and said ‘You’re the Naked Stage guy! What do you have going on?’ ”
The two hit it off and Mr. Perl contacted Mr. Baker a few months ago about “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel.” He signed on as a volunteer for this and for the outdoor production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” planned for August.
Speaking at the community house on Friday, where they were beginning the construction, Mr. Baker said the design process for this project, which uses a minimal set with walls and screens in differing shades of gray, was typical. “I pulled from the script the psychological expression of the show. It’s a rather abstract environment creating elements of a little bit of the place and time of late 1960s Tokyo. The shapes and the forms are a nod to that. It’s not literal or realistic. That would be another production.”
According to Mr. Baker, there are elements of the design that play off of what would be the artist’s canvases. Sheer fabric is incorporated to evoke Japanese shoji screens. “The script itself calls for a spare staging. As with any play by Tennessee Williams, you can go really realistic if you thought that was mportant. For me, it’s not important. It’s too much of a distraction to get into what a Japanese hotel might look like in the late ’60s.”
He and Mr. Perl discussed the location, however, and why it was important to the story. “At the time it was written, Japan was a place of interest and in the process of changing. Intellectual bohemian sophisticates at the time would have been drawn to a place like Toyko.” He said the nod to Japan was there in subtle shapes. “It’s enough; it’s not heavy.”
In a way it is a perfect play for the Naked Stage aesthetic. “With the Naked Stage and HITFest, we have always tried to engage the audience and have faith that in the ability to act well the audience can imagine all the things we don’t present. For that to happen,” he said, “you have to be confident in the text.”
Rather than looking at Mark as a “demented and chemically poisoned ecstatic who was on the verge of finding a new way of doing color had he lived, we are having faith in the humanity that Tennessee Williams is showing us,” Mr. Perl said. Dialogue previously emphasized for being bitter and outlandish, will be treated in this production as coming from the struggles associated with creativity and from the playwright’s deep well of passion.
Mr. Baker also used the dialogue as the inspiration for his sets. “The fragmentation of the sets is supported by the fragmented style of dialogue in the script. It’s not typical realistic dialogue, but choppy banter. . . . The sets will be a further expression of that.
The plays Williams is best known for — “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Glass Menagerie,” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” — were written in the 1940s and early 1950s, but he didn’t die until 1983. “He had been having comebacks since 1962, but audiences always wanted the same turgid, roiling dramas,” said Mr. Perl, adding that “Mark has gone off and been the artist that Tom talked about being in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ and it’s not a triumphant journey.” It is, however, a journey of “passion, vision, and commitment, all those things we say we want people to be.”
The play will be presented in 10 performances from next Thursday through April 29. Tickets are $20 and available at Tokyo-hitfest.eventbrite.com. A production in New York City may follow.