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The Glass Menagerie

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 9, 2017

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Sam Gold. Scenic design by Andrew Lieberman. Costume design by Wojciech Dziedzic. Lighting design by Adam Silverman. Sound design by Bray Poor. Cast: Sally Field, Joe Mantello, Madison Ferris, and Finn Wittrocky.
Theatre: Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Joe Mantello and Sally Field
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Few next-generation directors have proven their understanding of understatement better than Sam Gold. An expert at stripping away emotional and production excesses to find a human heart beating underneath, Gold has transformed everything from William Shakespeare and Annie Baker dramas to rigorously modern musicals (Fun Home) into sumptuous experiences that, at their best, are about far more than themselves. It's that history of mining theatrical necessity rather than mere theatrical effect that most makes his revival of The Glass Menagerie at the Belasco such a colossal disappointment.

Here, the decoration, the artifice, and the gimmickry aren't just most of the thing, they're the whole thing. Rather than dig into core of what Tennessee Williams was trying to convey in his 1945 memory-play masterpiece about a St. Louis family on the brink of personal apocalypse, Gold has smothered its profundities with so many external artistic pretensions that the result may as well be the deconstructionist work of experimental Belgian director Ivo van Hove (who hosted an earlier version in Amsterdam).

We are, it is impossible to forget, ensconced in the theater in which the play is occurring. Set designer Andrew Lieberman has cranked up the volume on nothingness with a heightened version of an empty stage, accentuated only by a few nondescript, era-straddling set pieces. Wojciech Dziedzic's costumes are downscale contemporary dress. The lights, by Adam Silverman, are unforgiving, veering violently between everything and nothing (one scene is lighted exclusively by candlelight, a rare find on Broadway). Only the sound design (by Bray Poor) dares consider subtlety as an option.

So when the actors arrive, conspicuously, through the house, we're prepared, whether we know it or not, for what they're determined to give us: a look back at a look back at a look back, not real or even an interpretation of reality so much as filtering the play's reality through ours to the point that the former no longer exists.

This is blindingly visible in each of the three leads. Ostensibly playing matriarch Amanda Wingfield, Sally Field makes no attempt to convey either Southern gentility or a Southern accent—she's a Yankee broad through and through. Joe Mantello, as the de facto narrator (and Amanda's son) Tom, is detached, beaten-down commentator who lures us into the past without suggesting he believes it any more than we do. And Tom's sister, Laura, in the script afflicted with a slight limp that's overpowered by a crippling lack of self-confidence, has become wheelchair-bound and is played by Madison Ferris, who is as well.

Oh, Ferris is capable of moving about. She can get up the stairs to the stage by pushing herself up them with her arms, something to which most of her first five minutes are devoted; she can (and does) also walk on her hands to move around more precisely. There's no question that Ferris's ability and self-reliance are impressive given her physical challenges, but while watching all this—and Gold ensures we see it a lot—we are forever aware with her, as we are with everyone else, that we're watching the performer, not the character.

Sally Field, Finn Wittrock, and Madison Ferris
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

In other words, this is unmistakably the school of the likes of van Hove and John Doyle, positing that you can attain greater truth by staging past the text rather than simply staging it. Under the right circumstances, of course, you can: David Cromer's New York breakthrough came with his radically unradical Our Town, which pulled everything way back and forced us to view the Thornton Wilder classic through a modern viewpoint. But key to Cromer's take was his willingness to ultimately corrupt his own corruption, and show us how his reinvention obliterated decades of debris to bring us closer to Wilder's precepts. Absent this final, connecting step, a production becomes more about itself than the play.

Like van Hove and Doyle before him, Gold has fallen into this trap, though I'd argue he ought to have seen trouble coming. The Glass Menagerie has the built-in conceit of the "present" (1940s) Tom recalling his 1930s upbringing, which means any new concept must be on top of what's already there. But doing so just doubles what the audience must already dig through, and is as likely as not to war with Williams's intent, which is already as delicate as Laura's beloved tiny unicorn from the collection of the title.

That runs rampant here. When Field pulls off her bathrobe to reveal a 1960s party dress, rather than an antiquated antebellum coming-out frock, the ensuing disconnect draws no links to Amanda's pervasive cultural obliviousness. Onstage rainstorms underscore as if with pile drivers feelings (and mendacities) more appropriately left vague. A mobile electric sign for the next-door Paradise Ballroom must be carried around and strategically ignited, since we can't be trusted to discern its symbolism for ourselves.

More destructively, the usually heartbreaking exchange between Laura and her misguided gentleman caller, Jim O'Connor (Finn Wittrock), has to be staged inertly to compensate for Ferris essential immobility. The dance between the two, a vital part of the scene and the play, is addressed in, perhaps, the most jumbled and confusing way imaginable. And why couldn't Gold couldn't be bothered to ask Ferris to blow out the candles placed right next to her on the table, when that action is addressed in the dialogue and not doing so spoils a critical blackout?

Such choices that don't serve the play extend to the acting as well. Only Mantello comes close to bridging the gap between Williams and Gold; the particular brand of dry cynicism he deploys is, at best, tangentially related to Tom, but at least brands him as a recognizable type of today: a recalcitrant activist. Field, though, flounders, her bewildering portrayal communicating mild frustration rather than the desperation that, until now, has always been a defining quality of Amanda. Wittrock exerts visible effort to give a conventional performance on 2017 terms, and might succeed if Jim weren't unimpeachably old-fashioned. And to the limited extent Ferris makes an impression, it's of Laura's innate vacant soullessness—a spin on the part that can certainly be called innovative.

Innovation at the expense of the play is no virtue, however, and none of what Gold adds brings us any closer to Williams. It seems designed to distance us from him, in fact, telling a story about the telling (or rather the untelling) of The Glass Menagerie rather than telling its story. But its story, about the myriad illusions on which we construct our lives, and which we frequently allow to destroy us, is eternal—the setting of Tom's mind recalling his more concrete and concretizing youth adds to its power rather than detracting from it.

But by making his production the destination rather than the vehicle, Gold obscured most of the magic the play can have at its best. He knows better than this, and has demonstrated it time and time again, even earlier this season with the (reportedly Broadway-aimed) Othello at New York Theatre Workshop. The Glass Menagerie can and should be shattering, to the Wingfields and, even more so, us. Alas, in building up rather than breaking down, Gold has ensured that nothing about this one is.


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