Shawn LaCount’s import of Green Eyes from New York City to Boston included the show’s two leads, but he needed a local to fill the play’s third role. LaCount, the show’s artistic director, called upon Emerson undergraduate Sheldon Brown.
“He told me to death stare the audience,” the sophomore performing arts major said over a cup of coffee at the Emerson Cafe, sporting a smile rather than the don’t-mess-with-me glare that marked his roles in Shawn LaCount’s production of Nursing and now Green Eyes, produced by Boston-based Company One.
Brown’s death stare isn’t easy to escape in the close quarters of Green Eyes, which premiered Jan. 18. Foregoing the stage, the characters expose their naked passion and fear in an actual hotel room in the Financial District’s Ames Hotel. Audience members do not pick up tickets at a box office but are issued key cards at the desk to room 303, where a dysfunctional honeymoon awaits them.
“The concept begins when you enter the doors of the theater,” LaCount said in reference to the Ames. “The audience has a full experience.”
Green Eyes was considered a “lost” Tennessee Williams play, first written in 1970 but unpublished for nearly 40 years. It premiered at the Hudson Hotel in New York City in January 2011.
The play is a psycho-sexual drama that focuses on the conflict between a couple in their New Orleans honeymoon suite. Claude Dunphy, played by Alan Brincks, is a soldier fresh out of “Waakow,” the alias provided by Williams for Vietnam. Claude is haunted by his actions in Waakow, and his new marriage to a feisty southern girl — referred to only as “Mrs. Claude Dunphy” — hardly relieves him from his trauma. Brown appears in the third act as a haunting vision from Claude’s war days.
The marriage turns into a crisis on the first morning of their honeymoon, when Claude discovers bite marks and bruises on his wife’s body that he has no memory of leaving. Mrs. Dunphy, played by Erin Markey, insists that she has not been unfaithful.
The claustrophobic honeymoon suite shared by actors and audience heightens the power of the performance. Haunted by the war and his wife’s suspected infidelity, Brincks is a time bomb, exploding in anger only to leave the audience counting the ticks until his next eruption. Markey slinks about the room twanging like a deranged Dolly Parton, playing with and provoking her husband.
Brown said that the room, filled with potted jungle plants and crowned with a painted tiger, was vital to creating the play’s mood.
“The audience has to feel trapped along with the actors. They have to feel the heat, the intensity,” Brown said. The effect the intimate space had on the audience — limited to 25 seats a show — was at times whimsical and at others, shocking. A man in the first row giggled nervously when Markey asked him to unzip her dress, and audience members visibly shook after Brinck’s first outburst of rage.
Brown first worked with LaCount when the latter directed Paraffin and Nursing for Emerson Stage last semester. LaCount cast Brown in the role of Harris in Nursing, a security guard who spent most of the show standing with an assault rifle and delivering a soul-searing stare into the audience.
“He’s an imposing presence and needs to be,” LaCount said.
Brown appears for fewer than five minutes, but it is a crucial moment for the play and the audience’s role in it. Brown’s character enters the room with the awaited breakfast platter, not dressed as a bellhop but wearing army fatigues and dog tags. He is both room service and a walking nightmare from Brinck’s war, silently delivering judgement to Brincks and the audience through a glare beneath camouflage paint.
“He finally looks at the audience to blame them for letting this happen, for not doing anything, for merely being observers and not taking action,” Brown said.
The short role is a big commitment for Brown. While most Emerson productions last a weekend, Brown will perform in Green Eyes 40 times over the course of its run, with two performances each night it plays.
Sometimes Brown does more than act: He keeps the audience in line. Brown said that a seemingly intoxicated audience watching the second performance of Green Eyes acted disruptive, laughing and making comments during the show. This would be problematic in a conventional theater, but is worse in such a small, personal setting.
However, the onlookers fell silent when Brown entered the room with his deadly leer. “It was really helpful to just stare them down, and everyone just shut up because they’re scared,” Brown said with a laugh and not a hint of malice in his eyes.
Green Eyes runs until Feb. 12 at The Ames Hotel. Tickets are $35.