Monday, March 4, 2013

A Puzzle of a Play: The Glass Menagerie at American Repertory Theater

Zachary Quinto, Cherry Jones, and Celia Keenan-Bolger in The Glass Menagerie (All photos by Michael J. Lutch)

The audience stood and cheered at the end of the performance I attended of The Glass Menagerie at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, and a few weeks later Ben Brantley in The New York Times made it sound like one for the ages. I wish I could echo that proclamation of greatness and the sentiments expressed in that ovation. This production of Tennessee Williams’ beloved play, directed by John Tiffany (represented on Broadway last season by Once, which began at A.R.T.), is performed with tremendous fervency by the four-person cast – Cherry Jones as Amanda, Zachary Quinto and Celia Keenan-Bolger as her children, Tom and Laura, and Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller. Nico Muhly has supplied lovely incidental piano music, Natasha Katz’s lighting is gorgeous, and the non-realist set design by Bob Crowley (who also did the costumes) is lyrical and evocative. An abstracted pyramid of scaffolding stands in for the fire escape attached to the Wingfields’ Depression-era St. Louis apartment, and a reflecting pool with a quarter-moon dipped in it provides a downstage frame for the action. I have no idea what that pool is supposed to signify (Brantley’s explanation, that it’s “the abyss of being lost,” doesn’t make sense to me in terms of the text, and it isn’t even good English), but every now and then one or another of the characters wanders to the edge and sways toward it, as if in danger of tumbling in. That’s one example of the movement provided by Steven Hoggett, who collaborated with Tiffany on Once as well. I loved the strangeness of the movement in Once, but it was really choreography; here it intrudes on the play, and the actors are so obviously not dancers that it feels awkward, even occasionally embarrassing. I felt the same way about some of the staging, too, like the way Laura enters at the top of the play and exits at the end through the back of the living-room couch, and the miming of the meals. It’s OK, I guess, that Tiffany wants to do without silverware, but it’s absurd to imagine Tom would eat with his fingers or lick up the last traces of food on his plate. This is nonsense of a specifically A.R.T. brand. And it’s less forgivable that there’s so little on stage in the way of furniture and props that we don’t get to see the photograph of the absent Mr. Wingfield that Tom repeatedly draws our attention to, or that all we’re shown of Laura’s titular glass collection is a single figure.

The audience was cheering for the play, of course – for the poetry, which is exquisite, and Tiffany has slowed the action down so the ensemble can linger over it – and for the actors, who are the reason I went to see the show. It would be criminal for a theatre lover to miss a chance to see Cherry Jones, one of the greatest American stage actresses of our time (only Blythe Danner’s occasional returns to the boards prevent me from calling her the greatest), in a classic repertory role, even one that has defeated almost every performer who’s attempted it. Jones is a little young to play Amanda (though she’s certainly plausible), but she brings a great deal of warmth and personality to the part and does some extraordinarily witty things with her line readings, especially in act one. It isn’t until after intermission that she falls down the rabbit hole at the center of the play: Williams makes it seem as though we’re supposed to feel a fondness for this woman who is still half-lost in her jonquil-stuffed memories of a gracious southern girlhood and then turns her into a monster Tom can only, finally, run away from, just as his father did long ago. (He joins the Merchant Marine.) Crowley, I regret to say, pushes Jones down that hole as soon as she reappears for the dinner with the Gentleman Caller (Tom’s warehouse buddy Jim O’Connor, who turns out to be Laura’s high school crush) in a ridiculous lime-green layer-cake plantation gown with flounces and a thick fringe at the neck – and gets a bad laugh with it.

Cherry Jones as Amanda and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura
It feels as if almost every leading American actress of a certain age with a poetic bone in her body has had a fling with this part, which was created by Laurette Taylor in 1945 (it was her comeback role) in a legendary performance that a few of the actors interviewed in the documentary Broadway’s Golden Age describe rapturously. Most of the other celebrities who have attempted it, including Gertrude Lawrence and Joanne Woodward in the two feature film versions and Katharine Hepburn on TV in the early seventies, haven’t been so lucky with it. I’ve seen many Amandas, but the only ones I’d swear have beaten the odds are Dana Ivey in Neal Keller’s 1998 production at Williamstown, who played her as tough and resilient, and Judith Ivey in the Long Wharf revival that made it to New York in 2010, who grounded the character’s rambling, nostalgic style in a completely recognizable kind of meandering eccentricity. (I recall being knocked out by Shirley Booth’s Amanda on television in the mid-sixties, but I was fifteen and newly in love with Tennessee Williams, and since every trace of this telecast seems mysteriously to have vanished – you can’t find it at the UCLA Film and TV Archives or at the Paley Center for Media in New York – I have nothing tangible to check my memories against. That’s a pity, since Booth, who was a genius at playing faded women, may have been another brilliant exception to the rule.) The play seems at first to be about Amanda; then you think it’s about Laura, the pathologically withdrawn girl who lives in a world of glass animals and Victrola records and drags around her gimp leg – the result of an adolescent bout with pleurosis – with agonizing self-consciousness. Williams doesn’t love Amanda, whom he based on his mother, but he adores Laura, for whom his sister (who wound up in shock therapy at his mother’s behest) was his model. So he gives her the famous second-act set-piece scene where Jim dances with her and kisses her and breaks the horn of her glass unicorn before informing her that he’s engaged to someone else. It’s a very sweet scene – it almost always works – but it reinforces the idea that Laura, like her mother, is a static character. Perhaps only high-school English classes still promote the idea that Jim’s breaking the unicorn’s horn symbolizes that he’s somehow erased what makes Laura different from other young women. A thousand Jims couldn’t haul her out of the psychological cage she’s locked away in.

But if Laura can’t be the protagonist, she’s eminently playable, and Celia Keenan-Bolger, recently the female star of Peter and the Starcatcher on Broadway, joins the list of terrific actresses who have put their stamp on the role. (Here are some others: Karen Allen in Paul Newman’s 1987 film, who triumphs over essential miscasting – she’s too pretty; Calista Flockhart in the Roundabout’s 1994 version; and Jenny Bacon at Williamstown. Bacon showed up in two luminous scenes in an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit about a month ago as the widow of a murder victim whose homosexuality she had learned to accept out of love, and I was reminded of how marvelous she had been as Laura a decade and a half ago.) Keenan-Bolger holds her thin arms stiffly at her sides and her feet together in a “V” and her head is tipped forward slightly like a bird perched to peck for food. When she learns that Jim has a fiancĂ©e, she seems to shrivel, but when Jones’s Amanda, blindsided by the news, blurts out politely that she wishes him well and invites Laura to echo her, Keenan-Bolger looks him straight in the eye and makes her affirmation a generous concession.

Brian J. Smith and Zachary Quinto
It’s no secret that Tom is Williams’s version of himself, though some productions have made the mistake of running with this identification: playing opposite Julie Harris and Calista Flockhart, Zeljko Ivanek made him unmistakably gay, and Patch Darragh in the Long Wharf version was omnipresent, jotting down every word the other characters spoke. (If these sound like preposterous choices, they were.) Since he’s the only character who moves forward, he must be the protagonist, and I’ve always thought that it was the dramatic imbalance among the three Wingfields that balled up the play. That and the poetry, ironically, though it’s marvelous and like many Williams fans I can probably recite most of it by heart. If Tom is the protagonist, then those languorous monologues of his have the effect of stopping the dramatic action cold. The only Glass Menagerie that has ever worked for me is Neal Keller’s, where the Tom, Eric Stoltz, underplayed the poetry and the two women were psychically linked, Laura playing out a junior version of her mother’s disenchantment that provided enough forward action to animate the play. In the A.R.T. production Zachary Quinto, the talented young actor who played Spock in the last Star Trek picture, reads the monologues superbly but even on its own terms the rest of his performance doesn’t work. His physical choices don’t come off and his vocal ones when he’s not soliloquizing are uninteresting: he drags himself around the stage and does a lot of shouting in the arguments with Amanda, and you can’t help thinking that he’d do himself a big favor if he didn’t act so damn much.

On Broadway last season Brian J. Smith had a couple of memorable scenes as the Russian stud who seduces John Lithgow in The Columnist, but like Quinto he tries too hard in this production. His rhythms are weird: he hits a key word or two and lets the rest of each sentence drift away, and his volume is as inconsistent as the signal on an old radio. He does have a fine moment of misty-eyed excitement, though, when Laura digs out the school yearbook packed with mementoes of Jim’s high-school triumphs. It may seem perverse to argue with The Glass Menagerie, especially since it’s obvious why so many people think it’s a great American play. Perhaps I would share that assessment if I saw a production that made it work without doing what Keller did at Williamstown, which was essentially to shift its focus and alter its meaning. I’ve changed my views on two of Williams’s plays through the years – The Night of the Iguana and Suddenly, Last Summer – because gifted directors and actors have scraped off the stubborn, discolored remnants of years of misbegotten productions and revealed the treasures underneath. And sometimes I think that if I could time-travel back to see the way others were done originally I’d gain a fresh understanding of them. The three-minute segment of Elia Kazan’s 1955 mounting of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that surfaces in Broadway’s Golden Age, with Ben Gazzara and Barbara Bel Geddes, is glorious in a way that none of the many editions I’ve seen even approaches; it suggests that underneath the intractable warhorse that gets hauled out for a new  production every couple of seasons (there’s one on Broadway now, with Scarlett Johansson) is a play that would knock you on your ass if you could only see it done right. And Eddie Dowling’s 1945 Menagerie, they say, was enchanting from start to finish. Perhaps it really was, but once again this latest production leaves me cold.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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