Quentin Crisp, author, raconteur, and eccentric, returned to life this past January in the one — man show Resident Alien, at New York Theatre Workshop. This self-described “stately homo of England” spent years living marginally on the fringe of gay London; after the publication of his memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, he became a celebrity and moved to New York, where his flamboyantly effeminate style and epigrammatic wit kept him in the public eye, until his death in 1999. As written by Tim Fountain and starring actor Bette Bourne, Resident Alien is a portrait of the artist as a nonagenarian crank, living out his last days in his spectacularly shabby Lower East Side digs.
Resident Alien presented designer Neil Patel with a pair of novel challenges. Patel's scenic designs, more often than not, tend toward a certain sleekness and abstraction but, for Resident Alien, he resurrected Crisp's single room, located at 36 East Third Street, in all its squalor. Patel's setting consisted of a small box set placed at the center of NYTW's vast stage. Between the stained, dirty walls of the setting, a dilapidated bed and easy chair were placed in a sea of clutter — books occupied every available space. A grimy sink and mirror allowed space for personal hygiene, while a kitchen sink, hot plate, and half-size refrigerator allowed for food preparation. Two bare bulbs were on hand for light (although, in Brian MacDevitt's lighting design, sunshine poured in from two windows at stage left.) Every item on the set looked filthy, worn out, or both.
The design was a case of the purest realism, according to Patel, who says he worked from photos of Crisp's apartment, as well as a videotape. “When this project was first developed in London,” the designer says, “Crisp was still living. So they did a reconnaissance mission, interviewing him. The tape is fantastic — the camera pans around the apartment, so we had incredible documentation.” Of course, the play is a propper's dream — or nightmare, depending on your point of view. However, Patel says, “Everything came from a five — block radius of East Fourth Street,” where NYTW is located, one block away from Crisp's home. Again, the designer says, he worked from his visual references. “We had such specific details from the pictures. Everything was so random — you could never invent it.” Oddly, not everything was junk, he adds: “He had some really nice things, as well. The dirty plate that he eats on is a really nice piece of china. He owned an expensive tea kettle.”
Even though NYTW has a vast 50' — wide stage, Patel's relatively tiny box set preserves a feeling of clutter and intimacy. “The question was, do we do something scenically to treat the whole stage? But the director [Mike Bradwell] felt that if we created a jewelbox in the middle of the space, and it was compelling to look at,” the result would be more effective. Thus the set comes complete with ceiling — the better to display an ugly, bare lightbulb. The designer adds that sightlines weren't a problem, because the audience seating area is considerably narrower, at approximately 30' wide.
By his own admission, it's been a long time since Patel has designed costumes, but he did them here, dressing Bourne in the rattiest bathrobe of the New York season; later, he changed into a shirt, pants, and ascot tie for a lunch date that never happens. “Until the early 80s, his clothes were impeccable,” says the designer, “but later it all began to fall apart. He started to look unkempt.” However, he notes, Crisp held on to his use of henna for his hair and bright pink makeup. There was a rather grisly moment when Crisp removed his robe to reveal various bandages and bloodstains, the effects of a painful eczema condition, revealing Crisp in all his frailty. “Bette is 60, which makes him 30 years younger than Crisp when he died,” says Patel. “He has a normal build and Crisp was incredibly frail. So I made everything a little too big. The cumulative effect of that moment comes from that baggy, dirty undershirt, the makeup and bandages, and Bette's physical movements.”
The overall effect was remarkably convincing. Describing the set, Patel says, “It's almost like a photorealistic painting.” From the rumpled bedding to the sound of dead mice being slipped through the mail slot (gifts from an even odder neighbor), Resident Alien provided audiences with a vivid snapshot of this professional eccentric's life.
Sound design for Resident Alien was by Jerry Yager. Sang-Hee Moon was assistant scenic designer and Daryl Stone the assistant costume designer. Kwi-Hae Kim was props master, with set dressing by Tessa Dunning. Scenic charge was Kathy Rondeau, assisted by scenic painters Sebastien Grouard and Jim Prodger. Carpenters included Steve Antonakos, David Carrico, Jason Craig, Josh Helman, Jessica Jelliffe, Laura Maag, Lucas Caleb Rooney, and Waring Webb. Scenery for the production was built by Tom Carroll Studios. Resident Alien ran through the end of February.