Tuesday, October 8, 2013

‘The Glass Menagerie’: A Consideration

The Cast of 'The Glass Menagerie'

Let me begin by confessing that I am less enamored of the current Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie at the Booth Theater than pretty much everyone else in the entire universe.  
I’ve thought about this a lot, and so I am offering up this consideration in lieu of a review.  

I’ll admit to being stuck a bit because of how much I liked the production of the play mounted by the Roundabout at the Laura Pels in 2010. Here is what I wrote about it back then:

One of the reasons it works well is because it is well-acted. Judith Ivey captures Amanda Wingfield in all of her complexity: abandoned wife, overbearing mother, flirtatious Southern belle, and practical and sacrificing breadwinner trying to hold things together. The fragile Laura, as portrayed by Keira Keeley, seems to exaggerate her crippled gait as it suits her purposes; in her own way, she is as self-serving and self-protective as the rest of her clan. Patch Darragh imbues Tom with layers of restlessness, anger, self-deprecation, social awkwardness, a strong sense of the absurd, and a sharp tongue with which he lashes out at Amanda. 

I especially liked the way that production, directed by Gordon Edelstein, treated the play as a piece of manipulated memory—that is, as a piece of writing that was prepared for public consumption, with the playwright’s actual memories reinvented, shaped, and polished to suit his ends.  

The current Broadway production, under the direction of John Tiffany, is also well acted by Cherry Jones as Amanda, Zachary Quinto as Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura, and Brian J. Smith as Jim, the “gentleman caller.”  But Mr. Tiffany’s take, which admittedly is clear-eyed and smartly presented, changes the characterizations in ways that I find off-putting, even when, on occasion, it elucidates parts of the play in ways I hadn’t thought of before.  

To begin with, the play seems more dreamlike than memory-like. There are bits of stage business that make sense only if we think of them as elements of a dream:  Tom’s initial lurch onto the set, Laura’s unusual entrance and exit, the miming of the setting of the table, and, my favorite having to do with a lit match.  I think all of this is overdone, however—bits of trickery that draw too much attention to themselves and away from the play.  Yet, as Tom tells us right off the bat, “the play is memory,” and not a dream.

As much as I admire Ms. Jones as an actress, I can’t say I am taken with her portrayal of Amanda, who seems far too strident and as socially inept as Laura—in her interaction with Jim, yes, but even more so in her scenes on the phone.  It’s hard to believe she would ever be able to sell a magazine subscription (whereas in Judith Ivey’s interpretation, I had the sense that Amanda was a hard-working woman who at least managed to eke out a living).

Even though I do not like the tone of bitter disappointment and disapproval that colors everything Amanda says, what I do like is the way that she and Tom seem perfectly matched.  This is the first production I’ve seen where I believe that Amanda and Tom are mother and son, peas-in-a-pod whose lives have been irredeemably altered by the abandonment by Tom and Laura’s father.  For the first time, I understand why Tennessee Williams has both characters use the same joking remark about the missing father, the line about the telephone man “who fell in love with long distance.”

The Glass Menagerie has always struck me as two plays somewhat awkwardly sewn together.  I find this to be particularly true with the current production.  One play is about Amanda and Tom, locked in a Strindberg-like relationship of mutual battle.  The other play is the one that unfolds when Laura and Jim are together.  It is as sweet as any work I’ve ever seen, and, in a different milieu, it could serve as the basis for a romantic comedy in which Laura learns that she is worthy of being loved for herself. Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith are perfect together, and this is the part of the play that represents the best that the playwright has to offer—as delicate as the other part is harsh.  
What is clear in all of this is that I simply do not care for the interpretation that the director has brought to The Glass Menagerie. I look for less determined planning and more subtlety, with room for the audience to mull things over.  This production is just too packaged and hermetically sealed.

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