The Glass Menagerie Theatre Review - The Mark Taper Revives A Tennessee Williams Classic

Patch Darragh in "The Glass Menagerie" now running at The Mark Taper Forum

In a hotel room somewhere in “the past”, Tom Wingfield (Patch Darragh) opens a bottle of booze, winds up the victrola, sits at his typewriter, and dictates aloud the introduction to Tennessee Williams’, The Glass Menagerie. He types the narration that he is the brother to a feeble crippled sister, the adult son of an overbearing, incessantly nagging ex-Southern debutante and an absentee father – a telephone man who “fell in love with long distance.” Tom’s narrative transports the audience back to the week leading up to the disintegration of this tiny dysfunctional clan.

Sister Laura (Keira Keeley) is stricken with such dire shyness that she is incapacitated by any human contact beyond her own family. She has failed out of high school and business school and constantly retreats into her secret world of tiny glass figurines.

Saddled in the role of provider, Tom himself is stuck in a factory job that he hates, drinks too much and is slowly giving in to the call of freedom and adventure, like in the movies, like his father did.

Keira Keeley (l) & Judith Ivey (r) in "The Glass Menagerie" now running at The Mark Taper Forum

When she is not regaling her youth of popularity and privilege back in the Blue Mountains, Amanda Wingfield (Judith Ivey) is relentless in her efforts to talk some sense into her strange children. She browbeats them about posture and money, about who they are not and who she would like them to be, and she bemoans who she could have been if she hadn’t pick Mr. Wingfield for a husband based solely on his charm. When Mrs. Wingfield learns that Laura has flunked out of business school (due in large part to indigestion), she makes a drastic decision: Laura needs to find a husband, so Tom needs to find a gentleman callers for his sister.

For once, Tom comes through for his mother.

At the end of the first act, all three characters make a wish on the moon, each of them hinging their hopes, in one way or another, on Jim O'Connor (Ben McKenzie) the morrow’s gentleman caller . My wish at the end of act one was that I was enjoying this production. Much of the direction was forced, manufactured, with each beat being driven home with a sledgehammer. There were so few moments of organic interaction between characters (maybe the kiss…) If it doesn’t feel real, how am I supposed to engage emotionally?

I know. I make this argument a lot, but the fact of the matter is, if the audience does not believe these characters are real, they don’t engage. Who wants to pay the price of a theatre ticket to have an experience that does not stay with you beyond a weekend? Theatre is not a sit-com where there are no stakes, where everything always works out and the only real investment the audience is asked to make is time. Theatre is participatory. The reason you are in the same room with the performers is to have an immediate, authentic experience; to connect and engage. But I digress…

Judith Ivey as Amanda Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie"

Judith Ivey was lovely. If this were a one-woman show, it would have been marvelous. As it stands, there is very little chemistry between the “Wingfield family.” Several times her character is engaged in unmotivated stage business, folding this, hanging that, it’s not surprising that she dropped her lines more than once. But overall, her energy was great.

I really wanted to like Patch Darragh, but really didn’t. The vocal acrobatics and physical contortions he chose for his character translated less as a selfish, restless thirty year old man and more like a petulant six year old child. He had a really great three minutes at the top of the show. Beyond that, unfortunately, everything about his performance was affected in some way. Here’s hoping it was simply opening night adrenaline and that he finds a more balanced, realistic groove as the run progresses.

Ben McKenzie & Keira Keeley in "The Glass Menagerie" now running at The Mark Taper Forum

                                                                     Keira Keeley & Ben McKenzie faired better in their roles of Laura & Jim respectively.  They had some lovely moments together during their “date scene.” For a little while, we actually had two actors in the same play, listening to one another. For a little while, the show was free of frenetic character antics and staccato pacing. I enjoyed McKenzie so much that I could even forgive the incongruence of casting a physically small actor to play a football super-hero. I’ll take the good acting any day.

The blackout in candlelight was a brave choice that does not quite work on practice. In the outer reaches of the Mark Taper Forum, the audience really does need to see the actors in order to hear them. The sound design is limited to only those actually mentioned in the script, which I found to be a gross oversight of missed opportunities.

Likewise, I was not a fan of the set. Again, the idea to go abstract and dress the stage minimally with the suggestion of these rooms is an interesting choice, as is the choice not to have a couch. But it was never clear if this set was supposed to be one room, or if the walls were implied. Moreover, the notion of Tom’s claustrophobia fights the actually openness of the set, which is designed with a gigantic empty space at its center; coincidently the same space - dead center stage – where Mrs. Wingfield just happens to deliver much of her lines. The set did not feel like a home; it looked and felt like a performance space.

Laura Wingfield (Keira Keeley) enamoured with "The Glass Menagerie"

I liked the device of Tom reading his book out loud. It successfully navigates the issue of one character essentially talking to the audience for most of the play. Where this production falls down is how it decides to interpret the self-proclaimed status of a “Memory Play.” Director Gordon Edelstein has the choice to interpret this play as a dream where things happen magically and illogically, or to use a lens that is practical and objective where things happen literally and logically. This production never makes a choice and commits to it, which is unfortunate, because the end product suffers because of it. There are plenty of good elements in this production that are simply mismanaged.

Sunday night’s performance of The Glass Menagerie at the Mark Taper was met with a standing ovation at its conclusion. There were many moments of hearty laughter and some solid scene work from the cast.

As for me, I didn’t quite get the reaction. If I want to see a sitcom, where characters obviously pander for laughter, I can stay home and pop in a DVD of Friends.

Just one girl’s opinion…

The Glass Menagerie is running now through October 17, 2010 @

The Mark Taper Forum
(Downtown at the Los Angeles Music Center)
135 N Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012

(213) 628-2772

Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz

www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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