Reviewed by Carlos Stafford
The Glass Menagerie, the 1944 play by Tennessee Williams, recently opened at the Roundabout Theatre in New York City.
The legendary play deals with Amanda Wingfield, and her two grown children; Tom, young, drifting, drinking his life away, working at a dead-end job at a shoe factory making $60 a month; and Laura, his crippled, introverted, pathetic, stay-at-home sister. Amanda’s husband has long since vanished, having once worked for the telephone company, and “fell in love with long distance.”
This new production strips away some of the familiar beauty and rhythm of other Glass Menageries I’ve seen. It reduces the sweep and color often associated with the play to a bare bones clash between a hectoring, neurotic mother, played brilliantly by Judith Ivey, and her long-suffering, effeminate son, and sad sister.
Amanda, like another Williams character, Blanche Dubois, is filled with affectation, and visions of grandeur from her glorious past. She was a sought after debutante, admired, and pursed by numerous “gentlemen callers.” In relating her past, she tries to raise Laura’s expectations to grasp the world, to prepare herself for her own “gentlemen callers.” She finally desperately convinces Tom to bring home a fellow worker from the factory to meet Laura. At times the production goes for laughs in a contemporary, sitcomish manner, which is inappropriate for the time and place. Think Ray Romano! Lot’s of “tude.” I say, let the words flow, become real, no pastiche necessary.
The problem with this production is the staging. As a memory play, the action opens with Tom in a shabby hotel room, years later, banging on his typewriter, trying to exorcise his past. Behind a scrim, the past becomes present, and Tom melds into the action. But the set remains the same–the same hotel room with one bed, one table, with minimal, nondescript furnishings. A huge portrait of the absent father hangs on the bare wall. We are made to imagine the Wingfield home, but all is stark and depressing. No grandeur here. No hints or whispers of Amanda’s past–just bald, bland, poor.
The central metaphor, the menagerie, is placed unceremoniously on the edge of a desk, next to a typewriter, and has as much importance as a box of staples. No magic here, no gravity, no one even cares about the menagerie–a useless prop.
The well-acted gentleman caller arrives. He is sturdy, kind, forthright, and good-looking. A one-dimensional character but appropriate. Laura remembers him from high school, and alone now, they have a tender, open meeting that quickens Laura’s fragile heart. He implores her to believe in herself, tells her that she is pretty, and even makes her repeat it out loud. You see her blossom. But then, at the end of the meeting, he announces that he is engaged to be married. Laura is silently crushed, as he takes his leave. Amanda then storms at Tom for bringing home a fellow who was already engaged to be married. All is lost, the tragedy of the family is complete, dreams shattered. Tom makes his escape “on the light fantastic.”
Some years ago the Roundabout presented the same play with the great Julie Harris as Amanda, John Malkovich as Tom and Calista Flockhart who made her brilliant Broadway debut as Laura. I felt this production was truer to the heart of Williams’ play. Directors feel the need to tinker and fiddle with already good plays, to make them more modern and accessible to audiences, and to reflect their own view of the world, I suppose. But its only gilding the Lilly. What we need are new plays reflecting our own times. Let good ones stand as they are.