The theater is a swindle, an exercise in sham. Every play operates on principles of treachery: Flimsy set pieces substitute for solid spaces; people assume names and accents other than their own. Even the sincerest dramatic effort makes a three-card monte setup seem honest by comparison.
The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams’s 1944 memory play, employs all the wiles of stage illusion, calling forth false time and place and character through opulent prose and poetic sleight of hand. “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket,” says Tom, the Williams stand-in, in the play’s opening lines. “I have things up my sleeve.” Williams lets us know from the start that game is fixed. And still he invites us to put our money on the table, to outwit his writerly guile. Go on and try.
Audiences aren’t likely to feel too bamboozled by director John Tiffany’s atmospheric if somewhat aloof revival at the Booth Theatre. At the top of his manuscript version, Williams had subtitled The Glass Menagerie “a rather dull little play.” But it isn’t. If a slighter work than A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie suggests powerfully (and particularly in this revival) how ineptly we fool one another—as when Tom (Zachary Quinto) lies to his mother, Amanda (Cherry Jones), about his evening adventures, as when his sister, Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger), pretends to attend business college, as when Amanda encourages Laura to stuff her bra with falsies—and how much more successfully we delude ourselves.
The set, designed by Bob Crowley, offers a symbolic take on apartment living, with table and sofa surrounded by an inky lake that threatens to drown them. In these small and dingy rooms, Amanda dreams of her former luxuriant life. Tom dreams of escape while working in a shoe warehouse. Laura simply dreams, abandoning herself to old Victrola records and a shelf of fragile glass animals.
The revival is a tour de force for Jones, who flings herself viscerally at the role of Amanda, offering a robuster take, physically and vocally, on the wilted Southern belle. In her eyes, the shabby apartment takes on a brighter glow, her children’s half lives seem fuller. When she speaks in her rich, warm tones, it’s as though she’s trying to improve their circumstances through elocution alone. Quinto’s Tom tricks himself, too, imagining he can swim free from his family, even as their needs and his obligations threaten to pull him under.
Both these performances are strong, Jones’s especially, and yet both occur in a kind of vacuum. You suspect that if cardboard cutouts replaced the other actors onstage, Jones and Quinto would play their scenes more or less the same. This is, of course, partly a function of the script, which maroons both Tom and Amanda in their own phony worlds. Laura alone seems to see things more clearly. When she gives over into self-deception, in her warm and heartbreaking scenes with gentleman caller Jim (an affable Brian J. Smith), the play’s emotional center finally overflows.
Tiffany might do more to draw these performances together and to commit fully to the play’s gestures toward symbolism and expressionism. But his evocative production draws us to these characters’ inner lives, however delusive. They trick themselves and they trick us, too. But somehow we walk away richer.