Tennessee Williams’ first great play “The Glass Menagerie” is done few favors by helmer Gordon Edelstein’s on-the-nose interpretation, which stages the play in protag (and Williams stand-in) Tom Wingfield’s hotel room and features Tom writing the script throughout the play. Production improves mightily when Tom makes himself scarce in Act II, leaving his shy, disabled sister Laura — and the play — to speak for themselves. Revival at Roundabout’s Laura Pels transferred from New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater on the strength of positive reviews but Gotham ticketbuyers may be less enthralled.
Michael Mosley, surprisingly good in the difficult role of Laura’s gentleman caller, and Judith Ivey, unsurprisingly good as Tom’s overbearing ma Amanda, provide the standout perfs in “Menagerie,” which chronicles the dissolution of Tom’s relationship with his mother and subsequent abandonment of his family, told from the perspective of an older, sadder Tom.
Edelstein’s chief goal in staging the 1944 drama seems to be to make the aud feel smart rather than to simply give us Williams’ characters. Aud members acquainted with the autobiographical echoes of the play will get more out of the production by recognizing parallels between Tom and Williams. But Patch Darragh’s performance makes Tom (and thus, Williams) frustratingly unknowable. One minute he’s overdoing Tom’s crypto-gay affectations, the next he’s lapsing into melancholy reveries with the speed, frequency and forethought of a narcoleptic.
Between Darragh’s antic performance and the script’s emotionally weighty confrontations between Tom and Amanda, the entire first act feels fraught and oppressive. It’s in the second, when the two combative family members have much less stage time, that Edelstein seems to know what to do what to do with the play.
Like her character, performer Keira Keeley (who plays Laura) comes to life when Mosley’s Jim O’Connor enters. It helps enormously that Mosley’s gentleman caller isn’t callous or unkind — simply a little at sea and unintentionally careless, despite being good-hearted. It’s easy to see why Laura falls for him so quickly, and endearing when she does.
The surest presence on stage is Judith Ivey’s Amanda — she’s the one constant in the play’s shifting landscape and one wishes Darragh would give her more to play off of. She goes a long way to keep Amanda from seeming like a monster, which is arguably the role’s most difficult task.
Tech aspects are aces — Broadway vet Michael Yeargan designs a handsome, spare set, attractive regardless of the oddball take on the play it serves. It’s unusual to see a prod of “Menagerie” without a physical fire escape, where much of the action takes place. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting is dim, as called for in the script, but it’s varied enough to keep us interested and awake, and her subtle amping-up of candlelight in the second act is something fellow professionals seem likely to notice and steal.