In his autobiography “Timebends,” Arthur Miller wrote, “The revolutionary newness of ‘The Glass Menagerie’ was in its poetic lift, but an underlying hard dramatic structure was what earned the play its right to sing poetically. Poetry in the theater is not, or at least ought not be, a cause but a consequence, and that structure of storytelling and character made this very private play available to anyone capable of feeling at all.”
In his sadly wilted revival of Tennessee Williams’ 1945 breakout play, David Leveaux seems willfully to favor cause over consequence. The director is so in thrall to theatrical affectation that he has — quite literally at times — thrown a murky veil over the enduring work in terms of both its singing romantic lyricism and the clear-eyed mission of its dramatic storytelling. This approach limits access to the pathos of the Wingfield family and their private prisons, rendering superficial the depth of feeling in Williams’ most painfully autobiographical play.
And while it’s no simple feat to find new textures in the familiar roles of such a frequently performed work 60 years on, Leveaux steers his four actors along disappointingly obvious routes.
After playing Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” to mixed critical response on Broadway in 1992 and again in London in Peter Hall’s 1997 staging, Jessica Lange returns to the Williams canon as an especially fluttery Amanda Wingfield. The charges of inaudibility that dogged Lange last time around apply only in early scenes here; the actress projects more confidently as she fires up into the role, gradually uncovering the humanity and fragility hidden beneath the exasperating veneer of this carping, controlling, hopelessly confused woman.
Lange’s lingering beauty lends credence to Amanda’s inflated recollections of her vibrant youth as a magnet for beaux but diminishes the poignancy of her having become a faded rose.
Even if she is perhaps still carrying a little too much Blanche baggage, Lange’s characterization feels fullest when she ignites into girlish, giddy mode, notably upon fulfillment of her wish for a gentleman caller for her painfully shy, crippled daughter Laura (Sarah Paulson). Amanda’s triumphantly convulsive gush of ceremonious babble is funny, but also one of the rare moments in the perf to invite sympathy for the woman, pathetically lost in a world of past romance she strives to reconjure as much for herself as for Laura.
Lange hurtles through some of Amanda’s more memorable dialogue, particularly the ecstatic “jonquils” reverie. But her brittle frailty sits well with Amanda’s perennially agitated state and the selfish insensitivity that clashes with her maternal devotion. She also deserves credit for generally containing Amanda’s Southern flightiness. But there’s little to render this performance a distinctive take on the character.
Much of the blame, however, lies with Leveaux’s approach, which brings some peculiar — and frustrating — innovations to the staging but not much in the way of fresh exploration or insight into the text.
While Amanda is the showiest part, the drama’s fundamental anchor is her restless son Tom, the here badly miscast narrator of Williams’ memory play and a stand-in for the playwright himself. A last-minute replacement when Dallas Roberts was dismissed at the start of previews, Christian Slater is too old at 35 and seems too ruggedly masculine to play Tom, a character so often brushed with sexual ambiguity. (In fact, his Tom gives off the wrong kind of sexual energy around his mother and sister, clearly a conscious choice made by Leveaux but an off-putting one.)
Nor is there any trace of the poet in Slater’s capable but uninvolving perf. He comes across through Tom’s supposedly sorrowful recollections as snarky and disgruntled, but minus the airless desperation of a trapped man forced to make a pitiless exit.
As for Laura, Paulson’s infantile slowness of speech unfortunately makes her seem not just withdrawn but feeble-minded. The actress at times overcomes what’s basically another elementary take on a complex character, but her most touching scenes are compromised by a second piece of miscasting in Josh Lucas as Jim O’Connor, the feverishly awaited Gentleman Caller.
Williams describes this character in production notes as “a nice, ordinary, young man.” Lucas is a little too handsome, and he’s confident to the point of self-absorption. Jim’s attentions toward Laura should prompt a surge of hope for this forlorn, broken woman, locked in her make-believe world of delicate glass animals. But Lucas appears almost smugly condescending, taking far too long to locate Jim’s compassion.
This failure to identify the emotional heart of a scene is a constant through Leveaux’s monotonous production, most alarmingly when Amanda learns her investment in the Gentleman Caller has been wasted. The shattered dreams that follow her rejuvenation should be devastating but instead are overblown and unintentionally amusing.
Following Leveaux’s inspired collaboration with designer Tom Pye on the revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the choices made here prove somewhat questionable. Most controversial aspect of the staging will be a full-rectangular rail draped with a lace curtain that separates the downstage living room from the dining area behind it: The device evokes nothing so much as a hospital ward. There’s a more-than-adequate sense of stifled lives that filter out reality in Williams’ play without such fussy artifice. The noise of the curtains opening and closing throughout the play is distracting enough, but the decision to stage entire scenes behind the screen only exacerbates the production’s wrongheadedness.
The peripheral areas of Pye’s design work better, notably the significance-loaded fire escape and a rear overpass, visible through a rectangular overhead fluorescent frame, which communicates a strong sense of the St. Louis tenement apartment boxed in by its surroundings.
Natasha Katz’s handsome lighting creates striking visual moments, casting a buttery glow across the living room, delicately capturing the rainbow mirrorball reflections of the dancehall across the alley or quietly illuminating telling details around the humble apartment. And Dan Moses Schreier’s compositions gracefully follow Tom’s suggestion, “In memory, everything seems to happen to music.”
But no amount of stylistic flourishes can compensate for the production’s clouding of the melancholy beauty of what David Mamet aptly described as “the greatest dramatic poetry in the American language.”