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Review: ‘I’ll Be Seein’ Ya,’ a new play by Jon Robin Baitz, fumbles an old tune

A man and a woman perform in "I’ll Be Seein’ Ya."
Justin Kirk and Christine Lahti in the world premiere of “I’ll Be Seein’ Ya” on Center Theatre Group’s Digital Stage.
(Center Theatre Group )
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An unknown Tennessee Williams play seems to have mysteriously turned up at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. It appears to be a posthumous work from Williams’ disastrous late period when he was drowning in insalubrious sensibility and no longer in control of his gifts.

The title, “I’ll Be Seein’ Ya,” a riff on the old song, isn’t up to the lyrical standard set by “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Summer and Smoke” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Perhaps this is why the play carries the name of well-known contemporary playwright.

Jon Robin Baitz (“Other Desert Cities,” “Vicuña”) is indeed the actual author. And it’s not fair of me to blame Williams, who died in 1983, for a half-baked drama that takes place in Los Angeles during the COVID-19 pandemic, just as Black Lives Matter protests over the killing of George Floyd are taking over the streets. But Baitz, writing under the influence of his more illustrious predecessor, seems to be conducting a desperate playwriting séance.

This world premiere of “I’ll Be Seein’ Ya,” a digital offering from Center Theatre Group (streaming through May 1), was filmed on the stage of the Douglas. The production is directed by Robert Egan, the outgoing artistic director-producer of the Ojai Playwrights Conference, where the play was developed and probably should have stayed for a few more workshops.

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The redoubtable Christine Lahti stars as Alice Murchow, the kind of strung-out character that in Williams’ lifetime would have been played to the hilt by Elizabeth Ashley. A resident of the Pico-Robertson area, Alice has existed from childhood on the periphery of Hollywood. Now in her 70s, she might be more accurately described as the Beverly Hills-adjacent version of Norma Desmond from “Sunset Blvd.”

Both her parents worked in the industry — her father in the cutting room and her mother in the costume shop. Alice wanted a career on-screen but had to settle for being a department store makeup artist whose talent for smoky eye brought her into contact with the likes of Dyan Cannon, Eydie Gormé and Elizabeth Montgomery.

Alice clings to memories of her near-glory — being selected for 20th Century Fox’s Stars of Tomorrow program, appearing in the background of Hal Ashby’s 1975 film “Shampoo” (thanks to her makeup connection to Cannon). But as disease and mass demonstrations rock the outside world, Alice’s inner life buckles under the weight of resentments, regrets and a lingering sense that her time is up.

Roaming around her rental in full makeup and a wig, Alice breathlessly tries to refill both her psychiatric medicine and her preferred brand of makeup concealer. As sirens and flashing lights permeate her unrenovated sanctuary, she leaves lengthy, confessional voice-mail messages for her pharmacy that Blanche DuBois might find ludicrously over-the-top.

A neighbor, Dorsa Urshulami (Sussan Deyhim), regularly stops by for a wellness check. An immigrant from Iran, she does what she can to ready her friend for “the new realities.” “We have entered the After Times,” she says, urging Alice to join the social justice fight. But Alice, reaching into the refrigerator for more white wine, can’t seem to muster the energy to be on the right side of history.

The pharmacist (an affecting Christopher Larkin) also makes a house call after discovering that Alice’s doctor is dead. Although he doesn’t know Alice personally, he’s worried that no one is caring for a person in the throes of mental illness.

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Alice’s chief interlocutor is her brother Japhy (Justin Kirk), who floats in and out of the play with spectral freedom. A gay stuntman whom we learn died of AIDS complications, he challenges the stories Alice tells herself about the past, dismantling the myths she has taken refuge in and not letting her forget the way she failed him in his hour of need.

Lahti attacks the role as though she were appearing in one of Williams’ certified masterpieces. Her Alice careens from the kitchen to the telephone to the vanity mirror, where she executes smoky eye on herself like the Picasso of the cosmetics counter she once was.

The play calls to mind a fundamental difference between the glittering first half of Williams’ career and the dismal second — his earlier female characters put up a helluva fight. In his later plays, the women are more prone to bob helplessly about in circumstances too far gone to reverse. The fugitive kind have become the futile kind. Writhing is their only option.

“I’ll Be Seein’ Ya” conspicuously lacks dramatic tension. Why should we care about Alice’s fate? The emotional stakes aren’t clearly established for a character with not many paths forward, except perhaps to the Westwood cemetery, where her parents and many of the celebrities with whom she had a passing acquaintance rest.

Like Alice, Baitz seems to be struggling to figure out how he fits into a culture that is threatening to leave him behind. As a native of Los Angeles and an alum of Beverly Hills High School, he knows the unusual soil from which Alice springs. But this ersatz character study starts sounding like an earnest grant proposal when contemporary political issues are raised.

Eventually, Baitz decides he’s really writing an AIDS play, from the standpoint of a guilty survivor. But it’s not easy to invest in the relationship of the siblings when Japhy comes across as a smirking figure from Alice’s superego. (Kirk, helpless to fill in what’s dramatically missing, gives the character no more reality than a dating app profile.)

Lost in the labyrinth of her delusions, Lahti’s Alice is overpoweringly present. But trapped in a playwright’s limbo, she is sadly unable to reach us.

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‘I'll Be Seein' Ya’

Where: Via Center Theatre Group’s Digital Stage
When: Streaming through May 1
Cost: $25 per household
Info: CTGLA.org/IllBeSeeinYa
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

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