I can't recall how many productions of THE GLASS MENAGERIE I have seen in the U.S. and in London. The best of Williams is like Shakespeare -- each production shows you something new about the play but none is definitive. The play is good enough to support multiple interpretations.
For years after Laurette Taylor's performance in the original production, it was considered a vehicle for an aging actress -- often too aged for the role. If Tom and Laura are in their twenties, Amanda is probably in her forties. Jessica Tandy played in in her eighties -- her children should have been in their sixties, which would have changed the play somewhat. Recent productions I have seen have properly put the focus on Tom. In the Young Vic production in London a couple of years ago, Leo Bill, playing a very neurotic Tom who was obviously doing something in the movie theatre beside watching movies (Williams wrote a few short stories in the 1940s about furtive homosexual activity in movie theatres), and Kyle Soller as a Gentleman Caller who knew his best years had passed, stole the show from a dullish Amanda and Laura. In the current production by Scots director John Tiffany, who directed the brilliant BLACK WATCH for the National Theatre of Scotland and the not so brilliant ONCE for Broadway, THE GLASS MENAGERIE emerges as a play about a fraught but loving mother-son relationship. Tom, brilliantly played by Zachary Quinto, is driven to distraction by his mother's constant palaver but he loves her dearly. For me the most memorable moments in the production are the scenes with Tom and Amanda (played by Cherry Jones -- what more need one say?) standing close together on the fire escape. There is love in those moments. This Amanda adored her husband and sees him in her son who will also abandon her. There is more nuance in these scenes than I have ever seen -- and more humor.
Alas, last night's preview audience at the Booth wanted to laugh at everything, even the poignant moments in the scene between Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Jim O'Connor, the Gentleman Caller (Brian J. Smith). I may be imagining this, but at the curtain call, it looked like some of the cast found this performance frustrating. Was this an audience that didn't know the play at all and had come to see Zachary Quinto (the gay contingent was very large)? Keenan-Bolger's Laura was lower key than usual but there was nothing funny in her responses to her high school fantasy come to life. Brian J. Smith was certainly not playing for laughs. His Jim could briefly relive his long gone high school triumphs through Laura's adoration. In fact, Smith was the most "natural", believable Jim I have seen. Yet the audience saw the scene as comic. Was it the lack of realistic detail in the set and props that threw the audience off (one unicorn for the glass menagerie, for instance)? The production was actually less stylized than Williams called for. Everything in the production -- the choreographed interludes between scenes to the lovely, melancholy music of Nico Muhly; the set, an isolated island dark, glistening in a sea of memory from which a neon crescent sliver of a moon would sometimes appear; the dark, atmospheric lighting -- was there to support the idea of the play as the memory play Tom describes in his first address to the audience. So why did the audience want this to be a sitcom? During Tom's opening speech, Laura first emerges magically from between the cushions of the sofa. Tiffany used this effect of characters mysteriously emerging from and disappearing into pieces of furniture in BLACK WATCH. It's anything but realistic, but typical of his style. Here it elicited giggles from the audience who were not used to this sort of theatrical effect in what is supposedly a realistic drama (Williams's work always is in conflict with the conventions of theatrical realism). No one was more aware the Williams that something can be funny and deeply sad at the same time. Tiffany's production acknowledged this, but the audience had trouble acknowledging the sad. They weren't as boorish as most Broadway audiences these days, nonetheless . . . . Perhaps Broadway has become so synonymous with "entertainment" that audiences aren't prepared to take a great play seriously. There is humor in THE GLASS MENAGERIE, but there is also great sadness and desperation.
Apologies for reviewing the audience reaction more than the play. I admired the production greatly. Celia Keenan-Bolger may fade into the woodwork a bit too much, though that is just what Laura would like to do, but everyone else gives magnificent performances. Cherry Jones's Amanda is overwhelming in her bossiness, her constant recounting of past happiness, her struggle for economic survival and her love for her troubled and troubling children, neither of whom has quite grown up. She's absurd at moments, but a grand figure. Quinto finds more notes in Tom's speeches than any actor I have seen in the role. In film and on television I have always found him an unusually powerful, charismatic actor who was too good for the material he was given. Here he matches William's fine writing. He belongs on stage. Hamlet, Zachary?? And, yes, there were subtle signs of Tom's probable homosexuality -- his discomfort when Amanda asks him where he goes at night (not the panic Leo Bill expressed in London, but noticeable), and his physicality with Jim O'Connor. Perhaps Jim was also Tom's high school crush -- the text makes that reading possible. Before ONCE I was a great fan of John Tiffany's work and even there he may have done all one could with the material he was given. This is not the only way to present THE GLASS MENAGERIE, but it gives its audience a more nuanced presentation than I have seen before. Too bad about the audience.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Booth Theatre. September 7, 2013.