Theater

Far From Tennessee

by

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.

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.)

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?