The first thing Tennessee Williams does is light a cigarette. Then he gets chatty in that molasses Southern accent of his.
In the background, at the gleaming drinks cart, William Inge is slicing limes. It is 1944, and this is his home, in St. Louis, where he works as a journalist. Williams, not yet famous, is just about to arrive for an interview. For now, though, he is our narrator, addressing us from outside the scene.
“My name is Mr. Williams, Tom. Tennessee for short,” he says after he’s been going on a while.
It’s a funny line, and in Philip Dawkins’s unruly new play, “The Gentleman Caller” — an Abingdon Theater Company production that opened on Thursday evening at the Cherry Lane Theater — Juan Francisco Villa delivers it just right. Even as we laugh, our minds turn to Tom, the narrator of Williams’s autobiographical drama “The Glass Menagerie,” which for the moment bears a different title.
“At this point,” he tells us, “it’s still going by one of its many earlier incarnations, ‘The Gentleman Caller,’ which so happens to be the title of this very play in which I appear before you. Quelle coincidence!”
He knows the future, this teasing narrator, and so of course does Mr. Dawkins, who lets a surfeit of biographical information overwhelm his play. It imagines two meetings between Williams and Inge, who in life were friends for a while and competitors for longer; they shared an agent, Audrey Wood, who shepherded each of them to fame.
Both were hard-drinking gay men, though Williams was more open about his sexuality than the firmly closeted Inge. Mr. Dawkins envisions the fumbling beginnings of an affair between them, first in St. Louis, then the following month in Chicago, as “The Glass Menagerie” is having its premiere.
Slipping in and out of realism, blending biography with melodrama and camp, Mr. Dawkins’s play is mostly a lot of talk. And not just because of the interview that Inge (Daniel K. Isaac), an aspiring playwright, attempts to conduct with Williams; this is the dialogue of characters obliged to fill in not only the details of their lives, but also the themes, along with unsubtle allusions to their plays. Inge mentions that his dog has gone missing. “She’ll come back,” he adds, and little Sheba leaps to mind.
Inge is unmistakably the second fiddle — a self-effacing man whom we barely get to know, though the emotional payoff in Act II depends on him. Mr. Dawkins so favors Williams that it’s jarring, late in the play, when Inge at last has a big monologue.
Tony Speciale’s bumpy production feels like it needed more time to find its groove, and for the actors to hone their performances. Sara C. Walsh’s set, though, is a feat of sculptural eloquence: a period room surrounded on three sides by lamp-topped towers built from stacks of typewritten manuscripts. Staggered in height and uneven at the edges, these precarious-looking structures reach for the heavens.
Gorgeous as this visual is, it’s poetic in its restraint. The play could take a tip from that.
The Gentleman Caller
Through May 26 at the Cherry Lane Theater, Manhattan; 212-352-3101, abingdontheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes.