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A CurtainUp Review
The Glass Menagerie

I turn back time. I reverse it to that quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes failed them, or they had failed their eyes.
--- Tom Wingfield's opening monologue.
Sarah Paulson & Jessica Lange
(Photo: Paul Kolnik )
Since its Broadway opening in 1945, The Glass Menagerie has had enough productions so that most people have seen at least one version of the play which established Tennessee Williams as one of the 20th century's most sensitive and poetic playwrights. Back in the 60s I saw a mediocre community theater production because one of my neighbors who had been bitten by the acting bug and was cast as Tom Wingfield. But even in second-rate productions and with actors failing to catch the rhythm of the words, enough of the magic of Williams' poetry invariably imbues any viewing with enough gold dust to make you glad you went.

It would be unfair to call the current Broadway revival (the fourth since the 1945 premiere) second-rate. However it is wrong-headed, too much so to be more than sporadically successful. That wrong-headedness is largely attributable to David Leveaux.

The British director, whose approach to Fiddler on the Roof, Nine, The Real Thing and Electra,, I liked very much, hasn't done as well with his new interpretative nuances for Glass Menagerie. Viewed in the light of last season's Kennedy Center revival of Menagerie and Ivo van Hove's revisionist take on another Williams classic, A Streetcar Named Desire, this Menagerie seems to try too hard to have it both ways. Still, the play is strong enough to survive this production's s missteps. Despite the actors' often misguided mannerisms and line delivery and the production's interesting but distracting look, it does all comes together during the fail safe emotional highs of the final scenes.

The Great Depression time frame and constant talk about old maids and gentlemen callers may give The Glass Menagerie the dated feel of an album with sepia photographs in little stick-on mountings, but the familial patterns of mid-life disappointments and children coping with parental expectations are as persistently timely -- especially in a society rife with single parent households like the Wingfields More than anything, The Glass Menagerie still resonates no matter how it's staged and where because it features four of Williams' most unforgettable characters: Amanda Wingfield, the Southern belle who is in a perpetual state of denial and anxiety about the life she is living as a result of choosing poorly among her many "gentleman callers"; Tom, the would-be poet son on whose sliver-thin income she relies; Laura, her crippled daughter who's as fragile emotionally as the little glass animals she collects; and the Gentleman Caller Tom is badgered into bringing home for his sister.

Those old enough to play the game of comparing all comers to those who first created a memorable role on Broadway will measure all Amanda Wingfields against Laurette Taylor. Subsequent generations might use Maureen Stapleton (1965), Jessica Tandy (1984) or Julie Harris (1994) as their yardstick -- not to mention on screen Amandas like Joanne Woodward, Katharine Hepburn, Gertrude Lawrence and Shirley Booth, along with numerous stellar Lauras, Toms and gentlemen callers.

Jessica Lange's Amanda is slim, pretty, flirtatious. It requires no stretch of the imagination to see the popular young Southern belle in a woman whose waist has grown thicker as her prospects for happiness and prosperity have become slimmer since her telephone linesman husband ran away because as his son puts it " he had fallen in love with long distance." With her red, marcel waved wig she initially makes us feels as if we're in some kind of a time warp and have wandered into the 1992 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire in which Lange played Blanche DuBois. But no, a revival of that play starring Natasha Richardson is headed for Broadway and Lange is indeed Amanda desperately trying to save her fragile daughter from her do-nothing, old maid's existence, and supplement her son's meager wages from a menial job he hates by selling subscriptions to other DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) members.

Lange has overcome her voice projection problems and gained considerable stature as a stage actress (particularly after her London portrayal of Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's Long Days Journey Into Night). While her chatter seems all surface in the first act, she's quite good in her needy reliving her own youthful triumphs. It's not until the second and better act though that she finally rises to the deeper demands of the role when she realizes Tom has brought home an ineligible suitor and her disappointment erupts into a towering rage of accumulated despair.

Christian Slater who, like Lange, added a feather to his stage credentials with a London revival (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) has an even harder time of it as Tom, the stand-in for the playwright. The actor, with his raspy voice and sturdy physique evokes more the touch of the longshoreman than the poet. He also looks way too mature to be a believable twenty-two. Having come late to the role initially intended for Dallas Roberts, he's to be applauded for mastering his lines. If only he could have mastered the cadences of Williams' poetry. His best acting is during the non-verbal scenes with his sister. While little is gained from Leveaux's injecting a not to be missed hint of incest into the brother sister interaction, Slater's macho persona does give a certain credibility to this.

Josh Lucas's Gentleman Caller, like Slater, looks considerably older than a guy just six years out of high school. Like Slater and Lange he fails to fully plumb his character's deeper aspects, playing up the determined self-improver at the expense of the high school athlete whose dreams (like Amanda's) have been ground down by the realities of the Depression. He is, however, extremely likeable and it would take a heart of stone not to get caught up in the scene in which he boosts the shy Laura's self-esteem and even gets her to dance with him -- then regretfully shatter her momentary joy and hope.

As for Sarah Paulson's Laura, this is the production's most satisfying portrayal. Paulson captures the shy yet quietly rebellious girl's spirit with understated sensitivity. Except for the incestuous bit when the director has her lie across her brother sleeping off another night at the movies (code for low-cost, low-class brothels), Paulson comes closest to portraying Laura with to rather than against type.

The major flaw in this production is the staging. Leveaux has gone all out to follow Tennessee Williams instructions for giving his memory play a dreamlike look. Thus he had scenic designer Tom Pye separate the living and dining area of the shabby St. Louis apartment with a sheer curtain which is intermittently pulled open and shut and has the audience watch some scenes with the actors heard but seen only as silhouettes. It sounds dramatic, right? Trouble is, it doesn't work. It does nothing to draw the audience into the dream and everything to distance and distract. The ramp and staircase leading to the apartment is dramatic but again detracts from the intimacy this play demands.

Leveaux is a good director and neither the production or these actors are a trainwreck. No play by this great poet of the theater, ever can derail when there's so much linguistic richness.

Long Days Journey Into Night with Jessica Lange (London)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest wth Christian Slater (London)
A Streetcar Named Desire completely deconstructed version at New York Theatre Workshop
The Glass Menagerie (DC 2004)
The Glass Menagerie (Williamstown Theatre Festival)
Tennessee Williams Backgrounder, with links to other Williams plays reviewed.

The Glass Menagerie

Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by David Leveaux
Cast: Jessica Lange (Amanda Wingfield), Christian Slater (Tom Wingfield), Sarah Paulson (Laura Wingfield) and Josh Lucas (The Gentleman Caller).
Scenic and Costume Design: Tom Pye
Lighting Design: Natasha Katz
Sound Design: Jon Weston
Hair/wig Design: David Brian Brown
Original Music: Dan Moses Schreier
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.
Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th, 212/239-6200
From 2/24/05; opening 3/2/05.
Tues @ 7:00PM, Wed through Sat @ 8:00PM, Wed & Sat @ 2:00PM, Sun @ 3:00PM Tickets: $91.25 & $71.25; Wed Mat-$81.25 & $71.25.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 31st press performance
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