Ben Brantley’s unqualified rave in The New York Times for the American Repertory Theater’s Harvard University production of Tennessee Williams’ second play, The Glass Menagerie, instantly made me want to hop on a plane to Boston to savor the achievement for myself. The lyricism and heartfelt emotion at the core of this fulsome, mouth-watering review moved me almost as much as the play itself.
Alas, that old adage about not believing everything you read in the papers turns out, in this instance, to be oh so true. Rarely have I anticipated a production more, and rarely have I been so disappointed. The valentine that the Times’ influential scribe sent in February this year bore very little relation to what I saw at the Booth a month or so ago.
For starters, Cherry Jones’ Amanda Wingfield is, quite frankly, grotesque. Sure, the character is nothing if not infuriating. She has no real understanding of her offspring's needs, and, like Blanche du Bois, her sense of reality is tenuous, to say the least.
But she should also break your heart. If her famous telephone moment in which she attempts to persuade an indifferent reader to renew her subscription to a women’s magazine doesn’t elicit compassion, you know something is seriously wrong.
Jones, who was so good in Doubt and The Heiress, doesn’t begin to engage meaningfully with this great role. She’s physically uncoordinated, wildly clapping her hands on occasion, and frequently flaying her arms about as if she’s just given up smoking and doesn’t know what to do with them. Her accent is pretty strange, too. She sounds as though she’s juggling a dozen deep-fried Southern marbles in her mouth. Whole sentences came and went without my deciphering a word of what she was saying. She’s the only Amanda I have seen (and I’ve seen quite a few) who makes it impossible to believe she could ever have attracted a gentleman caller.
As Tom, Zachary Quinto certainly conveys the anguish and frustration his father must also have felt before “falling in love with long distance” and quitting his nagging wife and family. What’s missing here is a touch of the poet. The heart-stopping speech that climaxes the play goes for very little indeed.
Celia Keenan-Bolger’s Laura is all but invisible in the play’s first half, but she blossoms, in a fragile kind of way, in the gentleman-caller scene after intermission. Emphatically one of the very greatest pieces of writing in the whole of the American theater, it is played by Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith with an honesty and an intensity hitherto rationed on the stage of the Booth, and provides the evening with its only moments of magic and heartbreak.
Otherwise there’s a heavy-handedness to John Tiffany’s direction. And a few jarring gimmicks – such as Laura sliding into a well-camouflaged hole on the back of the sofa (why?) as well as a rather twee piece of mime depicting the laying of the dinner table.
Great productions of The Glass Menagerie – a play as elusive as memory itself – should leave audiences emotionally drained, yet uplifted by the sheer beauty of its language and haunted and seared by the ghosts of Williams’ tortured, indelible youth. Nothing doing here.
In an often sparse, underlit and needlessly depressing set by Bob Crowley that seems to exist on the perimeter of some menacing black hole, this revival of Williams’ early masterpiece – with the glorious exception of Laura’s and the gentleman-caller’s wrenching confrontation – flirts with your feelings without engaging them.