Far From Tennessee

Jessica Lange and Christian Slater in The Glass Menagerie
photo: Paul Kolnik

The producers of The Glass Menagerie have made two large mistakes, which crash like tidal waves from opposing oceans over the frail peninsula of the play's charm. The result isn't as disastrous as a real-world tsunami—Williams's sturdy little patch of land remains visible and habitable when the muck subsides—but it tends, understandably, to depress most observers. And their grim reports will encourage tourists to stay away, which is undoubtedly just as well. Even the worst production of The Glass Menagerie carries some reminder of its virtues, but a play so frequently done needs to be done intelligently and sensitively, or why bother?

The producers' first mistake was hiring David Leveaux as director. Outside rehearsal, Leveaux presumably talks a very good game. (He's charming and articulate in person.) But his results, time and again, have a plodding predictability. Every play is reduced to a harsh and emotionally diminishing basic concept, every undercurrent or secondary motif to a crude oversimplification. His visual conceptions tend to be uniformly high-tech drab and his staging frequently awkward. In Glass Menagerie, Williams calls for a drapery separating the apartment's dining room from its parlor. Leveaux and designer Tom Pye offer him a stage framed on top by a white metal rectangle, holding what looks like a shower curtain that can be pulled all round the set; it suggests that the Wingfield family is living in the hospital bed from Wit. The elaborate logistics by which people get from one room to the other, or out onto the fire escape, make nonsense of the play's comings and goings, and reduce the atmosphere of the claustrophobic home to near zero.

What's left of Williams when the atmosphere goes is removed by the producers' misguided desire to cast bankable stars, meaning people whose frequent on-camera work has leached away their sense of working in three dimensions—and whose struggle to recapture it has probably been further hampered by Leveaux's cinderblock approach to character: Feelings must be restrained and displays of sympathy or other tender emotions strictly eschewed as sentimentality. Since The Glass Menagerie, though full of harsh details, is steeped in sentiment, as a memory play would inevitably be, the performances are mostly grim and angular, with the redeeming poetic touch that Williams grants to all his people carefully removed. Jessica Lange, struggling to get the elements of an incredibly complex role in place under this low-ceilinged approach, makes a sort of wooden, not-quite-there Amanda: She has the character's look and humor, but no deeper conviction. Her vision of her romantic Southern-belle past comes off as no more than a hausfrau's desperate attempt to cover up the dreary present. But Amanda's dream has to ring true, or we never get to admire her plucky ability to make the best of her sadly reduced circumstances, much less her strength of will. In Lange's performance, under Leveaux's guidance, these come out as mere hectoring.


The Glass Menagerie
By Tennessee Williams
243 West 47th Street

Even worse than the diminution of Amanda's dream past is the disappearance of Tom's dream future, which in effect removes the author himself from this highly autobiographical play. Christian Slater is not a bad actor per se, and he came into this production at short notice, under uncomfortable circumstances (his predecessor, Dallas Roberts, was dismissed, allegedly because Lange disapproved of his interpretation). But Slater's Tom is an ill-natured, self-centered plodder without a spark of creativity—and with an interest in his sister Laura that borders on incest, surely the worst of Leveaux' simplistic ideas. When Laura throws herself on top of the sleeping Tom, you really start wondering if you've come to the right theater. (Williams wrote several plays in which a brother-sister relationship has an incestuous element, like Out Cry, but this isn't one of them.)

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But this Laura isn't only quasi-incestuous; as Leveaux conceives her, she seems nearly retarded. Sarah Paulson, pretty and graceful, does what she can inside this constricting interpretation. Like both Lange and Slater, she's adopted a maddeningly constricted vocal pattern too. Leveaux is apparently oblivious to the sound of voices; the singing in his productions of musicals tends to be harsh and insensitively phrased, and he lets actors like Liam Neeson and Antonio Banderas, who might get better results with a little careful coaching, yell indiscriminately. It's a relief in Glass Menagerie when Josh Lucas finally makes his appearance as The Gentleman Caller: at last, somebody who has more than two notes to his voice, and knows how to use them. Unless you have a genius of the Laurette Taylor stamp playing one of the other roles, The Gentleman Caller always comes off best in productions of The Glass Menagerie: a showy role, a likeable character, a person who tries to help instead of being locked up in his own fantasies like the Wingfields—and one whose ultimate effect on the family is tragic. John Heard's Gentleman Caller was the best thing about the Jessica Tandy revival, and Lucas's, though nowhere near what Heard achieved, is very much the best thing about this one: appealing, funny, a little awkward, a little menacing, and a thoroughly three-dimensional presence.

I don't doubt that his three companions onstage could be just as creative, in some other context. The real puzzle for me is why people felt compelled to raise large amounts of money to assemble them, under the aegis of this director, for this play at this time. There doesn't seem to be any reasonable answer, except that audiences have heard of The Glass Menagerie, ticket buyers have heard of Jessica Lange and possibly of Christian Slater, and Broadway insiders have heard of David Leveaux, who has the additional prestige of being British, which in some Broadway minds is equal to artistic brilliance). That there was nothing particularly right about this combination of people, and no particular justification for their doing this play rather than, say, Everybody Loves Opal or The Revenger's Tragedy, reflects badly on the producers' intentions. What it suggests is a theater asleep on its feet, not noticing its own talents and traditions, but always looking outside for fashion tips, and relying on a desiccated 10-best list for moneymakers. A theater so far out of things will soon topple over and be buried. And what will we then have in its place?

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