The Glass Menagerie
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 30, 2010
[Note: I'm assuming readers are familiar with the plot and themes of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie. See Sparknotes for good information about the play.]
I knew I was in for trouble when the usher told me, as I was making my way to my seat at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theater, that this production of The Glass Menagerie runs nearly three hours with one intermission. Knowing the play to be usually more like two hours long, I double-checked. "Three hours," the volunteer usher confirmed. "This is the full play."
Yes indeed, as it turned out: the full play and then some. A good five minutes are used right up front to establish Gordon Edelstein's directorial concept. We're in a hotel room—a supposedly seedy one, albeit one that's as wide across as the Laura Pels stage and one that features a bed, a desk and chair, a dining table with three chairs around it, and an old phonograph. A man enters; he's billed as "Tom" in the program, but I was never entirely clear who he was actually supposed to be—either he's the character in Tennessee Williams's play, who as far as I can tell from the script is NOT a playwright but is, per Williams's stage directions, a merchant marine...OR is this character supposed to be Williams himself? In any event, this fellow, whoever he is, ambles around his hotel room for a moment, goes to the victrola and selects a record to play, and then finally arrives at the typewriter on his desk. He hits a few keys, and then pulls out the paper and reads from it aloud:
Yes, I have tricks in my pocket. I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.
Patch Darragh, the actor playing this play-writing character, continues to read all of the opening narration (and indeed almost all of the bridging narration that follows). This has the effect of placing a very real and tangible obstacle between Darragh and the man he's portraying, and between that man and us—actors learns their lines so that they can act with their whole bodies and beings; wedding them to a script, even in the name of artifice, is very limiting.
The play proceeds. At the very beginning, when Judith Ivey as Amanda and Keira Keeley as Laura appear magically behind a scrim and then enter Tom's hotel room, the idea that Edelstein seems eager to delineate here—that the play indeed exists in Tom's memory—is fitfully served. Amanda, handing a coffee cup to the empty air (where the Tom she sees is apparently standing), seems not to be in the same reality as Tom. For a brief moment, we get a glimmer of how this concept might have worked.
But then a more naturalistic approach intrudes. Tom moves into the scene with his family, where he will generally stay for the next 165 minutes. The hotel room, however, does not transform into the St. Louis apartment that Tom has seemingly slipped back into, which makes for some very clumsy staging (the dining table, where most of the play's action occurs, remains against that rear wall; the bed remains a bed, even though characters refer to it as a sofa; the cabinet where Laura's prized collection of glass ornaments—the title allusion of the play!—never materializes and instead Tom pulls out a batch of teeny tiny glass objects and arrays them carelessly on the hotel desk, as if they aren't treasured objects (or symbols) at all!
I was, frankly, confused by all of this. If this playwright character, Tom or whoever, can conjure people in his memory or in his mind, surely he can also conjure the furniture he needs to tell his story.
I was also confused by the presence of the victrola in the hotel room, and Tom's selection of records to play on it at various moments. "In memory everything seems to happen to music," he reads to us from the play he is writing. "That explains the fiddle in the wings." What fiddle? What wings?
Edelstein's direction stretches the play to nearly the three promised hours, yet some lines are gone. Amanda does not start the play by saying "Tom? We can't say grace until you come to the table." She doesn't explain, in the midst of an anecdote about callers gathering jonquils for her, that "That was the spring I had the craze for jonquils." Jim does not reprimand himself after kissing Laura: "Stumblejohn!" These omissions confused me, too.
Ivey uses a coarse Southern accent to make Amanda into a coarse, rather than simply faded and foolish, Southern Belle. Keeley makes Laura's limp into a severely noticeable defect, contradicting what the other characters say about it, and delivers almost all of her lines in a whiny monotone. Darragh's Tom is effeminate and apparently in love with the gentleman caller himself. Michael Mosley is the breath of fresh air that Jim must be, though under these circumstances that amounts to only faint praise.
I am all for illuminating an old script with new ideas, but I am not at all for drawing a curtain between a play's meaning and its audience with self-conscious gimmickry. I would suggest that Edelstein, here, has done the latter; I left the play not merely dissatisfied but saddened by the lack of a coherent presentation of the director's point of view about the piece.