Spring may have sprung, but there's frost in the air at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where a cold, emotionally chilly revival of "The Glass Menagerie" opened Tuesday.
Maybe it's the lacy white curtains that swirl around a good portion of the stage, obscuring part of the Spartan, almost abstract living-room set that gives the production its icy feel.
Or maybe it's because the drama's four actors seem to be in four different productions - isolated by those constantly moving curtains and the fact that they seem to be playing past each other.
But there's more to it than that. Director David Leveaux has opted for a high-concept approach to the Tennessee Williams classic. He has taken to an extreme that "Menagerie" is a memory play.
There is a dreamlike feeling to the whole evening, a hazy, amorphous quality that doesn't let anyone - either the actors or the audience -tap into what is Williams' most heartbreaking and autobiographical play.
Star Jessica Lange, sporting a curly red wig, has a lovely stage presence, and she has done striking work on stage before, particularly a shattering Mary Tyrone in a London revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
At the Barrymore, you get hints of what might have been in her portrait of Amanda Wingfield, the faded Southern belle who wants to orchestrate the lives of her rebellious son, Tom, and crippled daughter, Laura, in pre-World War II St. Louis.
Her Amanda may be a tyrant to her children, but she can be seductive, or at least flirty, when charm in required.
Lange has the coquette quality of this woman down pat. But what's missing is the pathetic, almost unbearable desperation that Amanda should possess to get theatergoers on her side.
As Tom, Christian Slater displays a gruff, blue-collar persona that works against the usual portrait of the son as a poet-in-training. He is a would-be writer hemmed in by his stifling warehouse job and a yearning to follow in the footsteps of his long-absent father. The older man has run off but his presence hovers over the play. In fact, a giant photo of him makes at least two appearances during the evening to remind us of his absence.
Laura, the forlorn, lonely daughter, is the most winning character in "Menagerie." Sarah Paulson plays her with childlike precision, slow-of-speech and with deliberate, cautious mannerisms.
The young woman's scene with the Gentleman Caller (a perfunctory Josh Lucas), the genial fellow Tom brings home to meet his sister, contains some of Williams' most exquisite writing. It's a delicate moment where expectations are raised - and then dashed. Here, it registers flatly, drained of the sweetness that makes the play's ending all the more devastating.
"The Glass Menagerie" is one of Williams' most popular plays, and it has had several Broadway revivals, the last being a 1994 production starring Julie Harris. Audiences always respond as much to its poetry as to its characters.
Those characters are not fully realized here. And as for the poetry, it seems to have evaporated from this production. Much of that language resides in Slater's character, and his rushed, almost offhand delivery removes much of that music.
But all this leads back to Leveaux. He is a thoughtful, intelligent director - witness his expert Broadway revivals of "Anna Christie' and "Nine." However, things sometimes just don't work out. This "Glass Menagerie" is one of those times.
If you missed Jessica Lange's Broadway debut as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," you're in luck. She's giving a very similar performance as Amanda Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie."
"The Glass Menagerie" is not an intellectual exercise. It should break your heart. This production simply falls flat.
Both of Williams' heroines are delusional. They are in thrall to an idea of the genteel Southern past that is hopelessly out of sync with the reality in which they find themselves.
Lange played Blanche as if she were in a fog, as if her fantasies could shield her from her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski's brutishness. This minimizes the complexity of Blanche, who does not lack aggressiveness of her own.
Similarly, as Amanda, she presents an impenetrable mask as a Southern belle, unfailingly gracious and solicitous but ultimately hollow and invulnerable.
We have a keen sense of how hard she works at keeping up the pretense but never a sense of genuine maternal feelings, especially for her hopeless, emotionally and physically crippled daughter, Laura.
As it happens, Sarah Paulson conveys Laura's pain intensely and beautifully. Even in a simple moment, when she practices her typing, she makes us aware of how much everything is a struggle.
As Tom, the son who will, like his father, desert his mother and helpless sister, Christian Slater - who joined the production only a few weeks ago, when Dallas Roberts was fired - makes an interesting choice.
Rather than playing Tom as the future poet, the future Tennessee Williams, as many actors do, Slater plays him as a crude, roughhouse kind of guy, making his decision to join the merchant marine totally believable. It adds an extra note of cruelty to Laura's delicate world.
A cruder cruelty is provided by Josh Lucas, who overdoes everything as the Gentleman Caller whom Tom has brought home to meet his sister.
Tom Pye's set also heightens our distance from the action.
I don't know how much of all this abrasiveness is due to the director, the Brit David Leveaux. I do know this is a play where "interesting choices" seldom help.
What a lovely play Tennessee Williams wrote in "The Glass Menagerie”!
The first of the so-called "memory plays," and obviously autobiographical, it still exerts its strange magic.
That spell was cast again last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, in a production staged by David Leveaux, with a luminous Jessica Lange as Amanda Wingfield and a roguish Christian Slater as Tom, her son – the narrator of the play; the guardian and translator of the memories.
I have a special, nostalgic regard for "The Glass Menagerie" because its London production in 1948, with Helen Hayes as Amanda, convinced me there was as much life in the contemporary theatre as in the classic.
The magic of Williams' writing is the manner in which it gradually transforms the everyday into the mythic.
It starts cornily with a narrator coyly breaking down the fourth wall and introducing us to a caricatured family that's not so much dysfunctional as maimed.
Amanda (Lange) is the thoroughly cracked Southern belle with a mint julep-flavored voice, ruefully remembering her runaway husband, a telephone linesman who "had fallen in love with long distance," and dreaming of her former gentlemen callers.
This ridiculous woman rules the roost over her rebellious son (Slater), our storyteller, and his sister, the pitiful, crippled daughter, Laura (Sarah Paulson).
Williams slowly builds his characters; at first Tom seems a cipher, glibly talking about truth and illusion. But bit by bit, he reveals a complex nature - chafing at his work at a warehouse, longing to travel, suffused with love and compassion for his sister.
It is through his compassion that we see the reality of both mother and daughter, a wispy, plaintive figure, pathologically shy because of a leg deformity.
Once the air of exaggerated comedy has been stripped away, Williams proceeds, very gently, very surely, to break our hearts.
Tom, at his mother's nagging, will bring home a friend from work, a potential beau for Laura named Jim O'Connor (Josh Lucas).
Ironically, the young man Tom brings home is Laura's old high school hero and . . . well, you either know what happens or you don't. Perhaps you can guess - but the ending is neither simple, nor simplistic.
Lange's Amanda comes on strong. This Amanda has found not only her inner Blanche DuBois but her inner Scarlett O'Hara. With her stiff, marcel-waved hair, her shining eyes eternally fixed on some internal fantasy of bliss, Lange flutters like a vulture. And her dresses are far too expensive and well-cut.
It is a powerful performance, but lacking in the pathos some actresses, such as Zoe Wanamaker in London a few years ago, can make telling.
Slater proves efficient and businesslike -although with an awkward mannerism of brushing back his recalcitrant forelock - but misses a touch of the poet.
In many ways, the best performances come from Lucas as the brash, partly absurd but wholly decent gentleman caller, and from Paulson, a fine-toned Laura, almost tremulously on the very brink of tears and yet carrying on with the right wry gallantry.
And, as for the play: Yes, it is still lovely.
Memory, which is notorious for playing tricks on people, pulls off some doozies in the narcoticized production of Tennessee Williams's "Glass Menagerie," which opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. As staged by David Leveaux, this revival suggests that to recollect the past is to see life as if it had occurred underwater, in some viscous sea through which people swim slowly and blindly.
Folks drown in this treacherous element. Unfortunately, that includes the show's luminous but misdirected and miscast stars: the two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange, who brings a sleepy, neurotic sensuality to the role of the vital and domineering Amanda Wingfield, and Christian Slater, who plays her poetical son, Tom, as a red-hot roughneck. Within its first 15 minutes, you feel the entire production sinking into a watery grave.
Audiences new to the 1945 classic that established Williams as a playwright may have trouble figuring out just what the family dynamics are that tear the Wingfields apart during the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression. The original text is intact, but the delivery of it is exceedingly bizarre, with emphases that keep contradicting what is being said. Designed by Tom Pye and lighted by Natasha Katz, the show looks exquisitely dreamy. (So, by the way, does Ms. Lange.)
But as is often the case with Mr. Leveaux ("Nine," "Fiddler on the Roof"), appearances clearly come first. And the stinging emotional core that keeps "The Glass Menagerie" in the repertory of evergreen dramas is obscured by gauzy impressionism.
In fairness, gauzy impressionism, as a concept, is in synch with Williams's idea of "Menagerie." Tom, the narrator, famously says in his opening soliloquy that he is offering "truth in the disguise of a pleasant illusion." In his production notes, Williams made elaborate suggestions for setting, lighting and music that would convey his dictum that nostalgia "is the first condition of the play." Mr. Leveaux and his creative team have reinterpreted those suggestions in ways that remain more or less true to the spirit of this advice but are not exactly actor-friendly.
The ensemble is asked to compete with mood music (by Dan Moses Schreier) that suggests someone playing popular tunes (including Irving Berlin's "Always") on the rims of water-filled glasses through an amplifier. Worse, much of the action occurs behind lacy curtains, so the cast members are often seen only in silhouette. The overall visual effect is rather like that of an Italian Vogue, proclaiming that the 1940's are back in fashion.
Ms. Lange could certainly be a model in such a magazine. Smooth-faced and compactly curvaceous, she portrays Amanda, a character modeled on Williams's mother, as a woman lost in erotic contemplation of the charming, sexy husband who abandoned her years before. Undulating by herself to the distant strains of dance hall music, or mistily recalling her glory days as the beau-besieged belle of her girlhood, Ms. Lange is less the image of Amanda than of another great Williams character.
That's Blanche DuBois, the illusion-addled heroine of "A Streetcar Named Desire," a role Ms. Lange played in her last appearance on Broadway in 1992. Though she received mixed reviews, with some critics complaining that she was inaudible, she now seems fully prepared, technically and spiritually, to take on Blanche again. (That role is being filled this season by Natasha Richardson, in yet another revival of "Streetcar," which opens next month.)
Though I missed Ms. Lange's highly praised portrait in "Long Day's Journey Into Night" in London several years ago, I can see from her Amanda how she might have been splendid as O'Neill's Mary Tyrone. But hazy lyricism and remoteness, which would have been perfect for Mary, don't suit Amanda, who for all her obsession with the past is a vivacious, determined go-getter. Ms. Lange captures Amanda's injured quality. But she summons the combination of heroic vitality and bitterness that Williams describes in the script only in the play's final moments.
That means the center of energy moves to Tom, Amanda's poetry-writing escapist of a son. Mr. Slater, best known for playing wise-guy mavericks in movies, stepped into the part only weeks before the play's opening, after Dallas Roberts left the cast. That Mr. Slater knows his lines and delivers them with intensity is to be commended.
But he hasn't shaken off the happy-go-lucky, blue-collar attitude of the part of the rebellious McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," in which he recently starred (irresistibly) in London. So when Tom says he knows he seems dreamy but that inside he is boiling, you think how little the fellow knows himself, since obviously the reverse is true.
As Laura - the shy, crippled daughter who never grew up and the proud collector of the glass animals of the play's title - Sarah Paulson registers the single sustained note of an anguished, terrified 2-year-old. As the Gentleman Caller who comes to dinner, Josh Lucas turns in a strangely contemporary, goofy performance, as if he were an alumnus of "Saturday Night Live."
It could be argued (by a deconstructionist in a really good mood) that since everyone in "The Glass Menagerie" is lonely, this medley of conflicting acting styles appropriately underscores the characters' isolation. But the sum effect is without emotional impact. The situation is hardly improved by Mr. Leveaux's having all the Wingfields caressing, kissing and clutching one another as much as they do. Incest is not what Williams had in mind here, even as a subtext.
This "Menagerie" has the additional misfortune of following Gregory Mosher's excellent revival of the same work, starring Sally Field, at the Kennedy Center in Washington last year. That production de-emphasized the impressionist approach for a grittier, refreshingly bracing social realism.
It's not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with exaggerating the poetry in "The Glass Menagerie," as Mr. Leveaux has done. But as Williams wrote, "When a play employs unconventional techniques, it is not, or certainly shouldn't be, trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality." Reality never makes an appearance in this surreally blurred production.
Tennessee Williams' afterlife on Broadway has not been much less cruel than his final years. American theater's great poet of bruised humanity died lamenting the neglect of all but the big-three dramas of his early career.
Two years ago, we had a lame revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' with theater amateur Ashley Judd as Maggie. And the double dose of Williams this spring does not extend beyond those greatest hits: "The Glass Menagerie," which opened last night with Jessica Lange, and "A Streetcar Named Desire," opening next month with Natasha Richardson. Still, both have shimmered with the promise of old Tennessee in new bottles.
The news thus far is not happy. David Leveaux has staged a tone-deaf "Glass Menagerie" with downright bizarre ideas about the relationships among the pushy and disappointed Amanda Wingfield (Lange); her disabled daughter, Laura (Sarah Paulson); and her restless son, Tom (Christian Slater), the playwright's autobiographical proxy.
No matter how many incarnations of the troubled Wingfield clan we have seen, we have never seen one so loving. Make that lovey-dovey. Make that laden with suggestions of incest, primarily between Tom and his agonizingly shy sister, who snuggles his face, rubs his thigh and even lies down on him as he passes out on the sofa.
Since the tension in the play is rooted in emotional estrangement, all this affection is more than a little unsettling. Less blatant, but equally odd, is the sight of Tom burying his nose in his mother's hair and rubbing her arms until, finally, his role as head of the family appears to extend beyond his paycheck from the shoe warehouse.
Leveaux, the versatile English director of dazzling Tom Stoppard revivals ("Jumpers," "The Real Thing") and unusual readings of American musicals ("Fiddler on the Roof," "Nine") would seem to have just the lean, translucent sensibility for the young Williams' memory play of 1945. Leveaux also has the intelligence and energy to help Lange evolve from her sensitive but inaudibly cinematic 1992 Broadway debut in "Streetcar."
The problem here is not Lange, whose subsequent stage work in London has turned her into a fascinating stage creature. While hardly a typical Amanda Wingfield in the fluttery-matron tradition, she brings a sexual, almost stylish flair to the woman's confused vitality. Auburn hair in finger waves, face made up like a china doll, she is a disappointed, nagging, delusional woman who also happens to have some of the neurotic flirtatiousness of Blanche Du Bois in "Streetcar."
Designer Tom Pye dresses her in long, pencil-thin skirts and silk blouses: no housedresses for this former Delta belle. When she lays on the chasm for the gentleman caller Tom drags home for Laura, we can almost see clear to Blanche's hungry scene with a newspaper boy in "Streetcar."
This is a dangerous interpretation, loud and strident, but hardly dull. Unfortunately, Lange has too much competition in the experimental department. Slater, a late replacement, plays Tom more like Barney Rubble than like a trapped poet whose factory buddies call him Shakespeare. Slater was compelling in London last season as the rebel Randall P. McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Inexplicably, he is playing the same lummox here.
Since the play is Tom's memory, we want to believe that he will run away from his hopeless family for sensitive reasons. When Slater talks to us from the metal fire escape alongside the Wingfields' airless apartment, he is just a sardonic lug who plays the heartache for laughs.
Except for her visceral dependence on her brother, Paulson's Laura has the gawky, sweet enchantment of a forest creature. Josh Lucas is appealing as the gentleman caller, though a bit too dashing and confident for a fallen high school star probably doomed to failure like everybody else.
Pye's set goes heavy on the dreaminess of memory, surrounding the two tiny rooms with floor-to-ceiling lace curtains that open and close on what appear to be shower rods. Leveaux loads on a distracting variety of musical underscoring, but moves people in beautiful silhouettes against the sad, filmy walls.
Williams describes the place as a ground-floor apartment, but Leveaux takes it down to the basement. There may be psychosexual significance to this move to the lower depths, but Williams has enough demons without it.