[My report on The Glass Menagerie was difficult to compose. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to say or how I felt about the production. I had trouble deciding how to articulate what I wanted to say and what to leave out. There’s so much to say about this play (about which I know a fair amount as well) and this production, that the report has run very long as well. (The press coverage was also fairly extensive, but more than that, it, too, was packed with opinions, criticisms, and explanations.) I’ve decided to leave the report at its extended length rather than cut it drastically (or post it in two parts, which it doesn’t warrant). As long as “The Glass Menagerie” is, you’ll see that the review round-up is again half of the length.]
There’s no argument that Tennessee Williams (1911-83) was one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century. Thirty-four years after his death, his plays are still among the most popular stage works in the Western world; just since 2000, there have been eight Broadway productions and 14 Off-Broadway productions of works by Williams. Add to that all the productions around the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and anywhere else the name Tennessee Williams resounds and the number reaches into the hundreds. The film versions of Williams’s plays are staples of television even today, and many of the playwright’s scripts have been remade for the small screen, often to great acclaim and popularity. Roles like Blanche DuBois, Stanley Kowalski, Alma Winemiller, Amanda Wingfield, Brick Pollitt, Maggie the Cat, Big Daddy Pollitt, and others that have become iconic in the American theater, have also become touchstones for actors, the Hamlets and Hedda Gablers of our era.
Even a quick glance at the list of recent revivals of Tennessee Williams plays will reveal that still among the most popular are his great plays from the 1940s and ’50s: A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and the one that started it all, The Glass Menagerie (1944). Glass Menagerie may be Williams’s most popular play of all, edging out even Streetcar in New York by one revival. So even though a Tony-nominated revival from Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre hit Broadway just 3½ years ago, Scott Rudin and the Lincoln Center Theater decided to bring in a new one. Directed by Sam Gold (Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s Fun Home, Public Theater and Broadway, Tony for Best Direction of a Musical; Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses; the upcoming A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath; Othello at the New York Theatre Workshop; Annie Baker’s The Flick, 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and John, reported on ROT on 1 September 2015), the limited-run revival of The Glass Menagerie started previews at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre on West 44th Street, east of Broadway, on 7 February 2017 and opened on 9 March; the run is scheduled to end on 2 July. I caught the 8 p.m. show on Friday, 24 March, with a friend of my usual theater companion (Diana hurt herself shoveling snow after our recent mini-blizzard the previous week).
The play, which is Williams’s most (and most openly) autobiographical script, features characters based on Williams himself (born Thomas Lanier Williams III, the prototype for Tom Wingfield, the narrator), his histrionic mother (Edwina Dakin Williams, the model for Amanda Wingfield), and his mentally fragile older sister Rose (who suffered from schizophrenia and was the model for the physically handicapped Laura Wingfield). Many of the high school experiences attributed to Laura in the play actually happened to Tom Williams, and Jim O’Connor, the gentleman caller, is a composite of the most popular boy in Tom’s school (Soldan High School, the same one Tom, Laura, and Jim went to, whose yearbook, for which Williams wrote, was called The Torch as in the play) and a young man he worked with at the shoe company named Jim Connor. The Williams family lived in a small, dark apartment in St. Louis from 1918 until he left for the University of Iowa in 1937. Williams’s father, Cornelius Coffin (“C.C.”) Williams, a drunk, a bully, a gambler, and a brawler, was employed at the International Shoe Company (which became the warehouse where Tom Wingfield and Jim O’Connor both work in the play), but before the promotion and transfer to the St. Louis main office, C.C. had been the stereotypical traveling salesman, mostly absent from the home and living a separate life on the road. After Williams graduated from Iowa in 1939, he moved to New Orleans (where he took the name “Tennessee” and turned from writing poetry to plays), and then New York City; until his burial, he never returned to live in St. Louis.
Williams drew on a 1943 short story, “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” (published in 1948), which essentially tells the same story as Glass Menagerie, which was also the basis of a screenplay he had written in 1943 for MGM under the title of The Gentleman Caller (originally considered as a vehicle for Lana Turner, then only 23, as Laura). Williams started rewriting what became The Glass Menagerie for the stage that same year and it premièred in Chicago as the Civic Theatre on 26 December 1944 with fading stage star Laurette Taylor in the role of Amanda. Co-directed and co-produced by Eddie Dowling (who also played Tom) and Margo Jones, with scenic and lighting designs by the renowned Jo Mielziner, the play transferred to New York’s Playhouse Theatre on Broadway (and later the Royale) where it ran for 563 performances—a very long run for that day—from 31 March 1945 to 3 August 1946. Winning the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play and the Donaldson and Sidney Howard Memorial Award, it was Williams’s first professional, New York, and Broadway success (after the failure in 1941 of Battle of Angels to make it into New York City). As Jackson R. Bryer reports in The Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia (Philip C. Kolin, ed., Greenwood Press, 2004): “There were 24 curtain calls on opening night, and virtually overnight Williams went from obscurity to being the subject of feature stories in Time and Life magazines.”
The play was an instant worldwide hit. It premièred in London on 28 July 1948 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket directed by John Gielgud with a scenic design again by Mielziner; Helen Hayes starred as Amanda and Frances Heflin played Laura. In New York City alone, there have been nine revivals on and off Broadway before the current one: in 1965 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (directed by George Keathley, with George Grizzard, Pat Hingle, Piper Laurie, and Maureen Stapleton); 1976 at the Circle in the Square Theatre (directed by Theodore Mann with a scenic design by Ming Cho Lee; starring Pamela Payton-Wright, Paul Rudd, Maureen Stapleton, and Rip Torn); 1983-84 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre (directed by John Dexter with a scenic design by Lee and costume design by Patricia Zipprodt, with Jessica Tandy, Bruce Davison, John Heard, and Amanda Plummer); 1994-95 at the Criterion Center Stage Right (produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company and directed by Frank Galati with a scenic design by Loy Arcenas, starring Julie Harris, Calista Flockhart, Željko Ivanek, and Kevin Kilner); 2005 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (with Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, and Christian Slater); 2010 Off-Broadway at the Roundabout/Laura Pels Theatre (with Judith Ivey and Laurie Kennedy); 2013-14 at the Booth Theatre (originally produced by Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre, with Cherry Jones, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Zachary Quinto); May 2015 produced by the Masterworks Theater Company Off-Broadway at the 47th Street Theatre; and May-June 2015 produced by Be Bold! Productions at the Players Theatre. John Tiffany’s 2013 Broadway staging reopened on 26 January 2017 at the Duke of York Theatre in London’s West End with Cherry Jones reprising her performance as Amanda, running through 29 April.
Other significant productions included several interracial or all-African-American casts. In a 1965 mounting by Reuben Silver at the Karamu House Theatre in Cleveland, the Wingfield family was black but Jim, the “gentleman caller,” was white. In 1991, Whitney J. LeBlanc staged an all-black Glass Menagerie at San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in which Laura’s disability served as a metaphor for skin color and the photo of the Wingfields’ absent father and husband was of a white man, raising the image of miscegenation. A 1994 production at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, California, directed by Heidi Helen Davis cast two actors as Tom, one older as the narrator and the other younger as the son in the memory scenes.
As it happens, I’ve also seen two plays related to Glass Menagerie, both one-acts. One’s a precursor to Glass Menagerie called Escape (written by Williams in 1937) I saw in 2004 as part of Five By Tenn at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center when I reviewed it for the Tennessee Williams Annual Review. (I posted my review, “Uninhabitable Country: Five By Tenn,” on ROT on 5 March 2011. The play was later retitled Summer at the Lake when the collection was restaged in New York City. I believe it’s been published under that title in Mister Paradise and Other One-Act Plays [eds. Nicholas Moschovakis and David Roessel; New Directions, 2005].) The other play was part of the Acting Company’s Desire, a bill of adaptations by different playwrights of Williams stories (report posted on 26 September 2015). John Guare’s version of “The Portrait of a Girl in Glass” was called You Lied To Me About Centralia. It recounts what happens to Jim, the gentleman caller, after he leaves the Wingfield apartment and meets his fiancée, Betty, at the train station.
The play’s been filmed twice, first in 1950 (the first time a Tennessee Williams play had been filmed) with Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda, Arthur Kennedy as Tom, Kirk Douglas as Jim, and Jane Wyman as Laura, directed for Warner Bros. by Irving Rapper, and again in 1987 by Paul Newman (nominated for a Palme d’Or at Cannes) for Cineplex-Odeon Films with his wife, Joanne Woodward, as Amanda, John Malkovich as Tom, James Naughton as Jim, and Karen Allen as Laura. Williams denounced the 1950 version as one of the worst transfers of one of his plays to film and it has never been released on video. In Newman’s version, Malkovich stressed Tom’s homosexuality, which is only implied in the script (or the original short story). In the U.K., ITV Play of the Week aired a black-and-white TV version of Glass Menagerie in 1964, and in 1966 CBS Playhouse broadcast a version starring Shirley Booth (who was nominated for an Emmy for her performance) as Amanda with Hal Holbrook as Tom, Pat Hingle as Jim, and Barbara Loden as Laura. The American Broadcasting Company aired a teleplay of Glass Menagerie starring Katharine Hepburn as Amanda, Sam Waterston as Tom, Michael Moriarty as Jim, and Joanna Miles as Laura in 1973; it was reportedly Williams’s preferred screen adaptation of the play and the entire cast was nominated for Emmys for the work (Moriarty and Miles each won). Several foreign-language adaptations have been staged or televised over the decades, and the play has been parodied a number of times as well.
Radio versions of the play were aired in 1951 on Theatre Guild on the Air with Hayes as Amanda, Montgomery Clift as Tom, and Karl Malden as Jim; 1953 on Best Plays with Evelyn Varden as Amanda and Geraldine Page as Laura; and 1954 on Lux Radio Theatre with Fay Bainter as Amanda and Frank Lovejoy as Tom and Tom Brown as Jim. In 1964 Caedmon Records recorded The Glass Menagerie starring Jessica Tandy as Amanda, Montgomery Clift as Tom, Julie Harris as Laura, and David Wayne as Jim.
Tom Wingfield (Joe Mantello), who both acts as narrator and plays a part in the narrative, climbs up to the stage from the auditorium and, while the house lights are up full, opens the production with what Hilton Als of the New Yorker rightly called a “glorious opening monologue,” introducing the play to the audience as his recollection of his mother, Amanda, and his older sister, Laura. As he speaks, he gets from off stage the Victrola on which his sister will play the records that comfort her. (This is a sort of do-it-yourself staging for the actors.) Because it’s a memory play, Tom, graying—Mantello, 54, is the age of the narrator, not the son in the memory scenes (Eddie Dowling was 55 when he played the part at the première of the play in Chicago)—and dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, cautions the audience that what they see may not be precisely what happened. Though Tom warns us, “I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion,” director Gold will take us on a starker, harsher journey into the Wingfields’ past.
After Tom’s introductory monologue, Amanda struggles to bring her daughter, who in the Gold’s staging is wheelchair-bound, up to the apartment, first pulling the empty chair up the steps and then going back down to help Laura climb up step by step on her butt backwards. It is painstaking, awkward, and hard to watch, and places Laura’s disability directly center stage. Later, Tom lays Laura on the table and administers physical therapy as Amanda sells magazine subscriptions over the phone. (Laura’s disability is an enhancement of director Gold’s, which I’ll mention again shortly. The actress suffers from muscular dystrophy in real life, a fact that wasn’t much publicized—Ben Brantley mentions it in passing in his New York Times review—and isn’t mentioned in her program bio. It’s noteworthy that the playwright himself had a limp resulting from a near-fatal childhood bout with diphtheria and Bright’s disease when he was about five and his sister, Rose, had had pleurisy as a child—which young Tom had misunderstood as “blue roses” just as Jim O’Connor had with Laura.)
Amanda (Sally Field), a former Southern belle now past her glory days, shares a dingy St. Louis apartment with Tom, 22 at the time of the play, and Laura (Madison Ferris, in her Broadway début), 24. Amanda’s husband and the siblings’ father, “a telephone man who fell in love with long distance” and left the family “a long time ago,” haunts the family via the “larger-than-life-size photograph over the mantel” (invisible to the audience on the fourth wall in Gold’s production). Amanda lives in her past as a sought-after debutante entertaining many “gentleman callers,” relishing the admiration she remembers receiving from so many eligible young men. She frets about the future of her daughter, who’s handicapped and extremely shy. (Amanda won’t let the word “cripple” be spoken in the home: Laura just has a little “defect.”) Tom works in the warehouse of Continental Shoemakers (the stand-in for C. C. Williams’s employer, the International Shoe Company, where the would-be poet also worked for a time) but resents the banality and boredom of everyday life as he endeavors to write. To get away from his mother’s nagging and scolding, Tom (like Williams himself had done) escapes to the movies at all hours of the day or night.
Amanda’s fixated on finding a “gentleman caller” for Laura whose insecurity has led her to drop out of both high school and Rubicam’s Business College. To disguise the fact that she no longer attends the secretarial classes, Laura says she goes out walking and visiting the zoo, and when she’s home, she spends her time with her collection of miniature glass animals and listens to old phonograph records left behind by her father. (We never learn how she negotiates the apartment building’s stairs or the streets of the city in her wheelchair alone.) Harried by his mother (“Will you? Will you? Will you? Will you, dear?”), Tom invites an acquaintance from work, Jim O’Connor, home for dinner.
Amanda, suddenly turning coquettish and upbeat, spiffs up the apartment, sets the table with her best tableware, and prepares a special dinner—salmon loaf because it’s Friday and Jim’s Catholic—for the special guest. When Laura learns that the gentleman caller is a young man on whom she had a (secret) crush in high school, she’s so overwhelmed by her lack of self-confidence that she feigns illness and retreats to the living room. When Jim (Finn Wittrock) arrives, Amanda, dressed in a preposterous pink tulle gown (the New York Daily News’s Joe Dziemianowicz called it “a Pepto Bismol explosion”) that made her look like a deranged ballerina, entertains him with tales of her youth when she’d been inundated with suitors.
During the meal the electricity goes out—Tom hasn’t paid the light bill; he’s used the money to pay for his membership in the Union of Merchant Seamen and is planning to leave home like his father—plunging the apartment into darkness. (Costumes are by Wojciech Dziedzic and the lighting is designed by Adam Silverman, both from Gold’s Amsterdam production.) It starts to rain, but not just outside the apartment—this literal downpour (courtesy of J&M Special Effects) soaks everything and everyone in the apartment as well!
Jim and Laura are left alone by candlelight in the living room, waiting for the power to be come back on, and as the evening progresses, Jim sees Laura’s sense of inferiority and encourages her to think of herself more highly. He dances with Laura sweetly (in Gold’s staging, Jim lifts Laura off the floor, where they’ve both been sitting, and holds her up in a sort of squat as they dance), but accidentally bumps against her glass menagerie. This knocks the glass unicorn, Laura’s oldest and most cherished figurine, off its perch and breaks off its horn. Jim apologizes, but Laura responds: “I’ll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish! Now he will feel more at home with the other horses, the ones who don’t have horns. . . .” This is a striking reference to the prefrontal lobotomy performed on Williams’s sister Rose in 1943, the year in which the dramatist wrote The Glass Menagerie, intended to relieve the symptoms of her schizophrenia—to make Rose, as it were, “feel less freakish.”
Jim tells Laura she’s pretty and kisses her, but just when it looks like romance might bloom, Jim tells Laura that he’s engaged to be married. Laura gives him the broken unicorn as a memento and he leaves. When Amanda learns that Jim’s engaged, she turns her disappointment on Tom, who didn’t know about Jim’s engagement, and bitterly lashes out at him. Tom angrily rushes from the apartment, shouting as he leaves, “. . . and I won’t go to the movies!” to which his mother replies, “Then go to the—moon—you selfish dreamer!”
In Tom’s closing monologue, he says that he left home soon afterward and never returned. Like Williams, Tom explains, “I traveled around a great deal.” (The writer was known to his friends as “Bird” because whenever he felt life closing in on him, he’d take flight for some far-off location.) Tom says of his sister, “I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!”; Tennessee Williams remained devoted to Rose, the success of Glass Menagerie ensuring that he could always take care of his sister, institutionalized for the rest of her life from 1937 until her death in 1996. Tom’s final words to Laura are: “Blow out your candles, Laura.” The line appears on the tombstone of Rose Isabel Williams (1909-96)—which is next to her brother’s in a St. Louis cemetery; Edwina Dakin Williams (1884-1980), their mother, is buried on her son’s other side. (In the text, Laura follows her brother’s direction, but in Gold’s production, Ferris shakes her head “no” and Mantello douses the candles with water.)
In his “Author’s Production Notes” to Glass Menagerie, Williams presents an essay on what he called “plastic theater.” (That’s where I first encountered the subject and became a little obsessed with it because I felt it was overlooked; see my article, “‘The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theater,” 9 May 2012.) The playwright wrote about it only once more, in “Williams: Person-to-Person” in a 1955 New York Times, and it’s still not heavily covered in the scholarship, though it gets passing mention a lot.
Williams wanted dramatists to write into their scripts all the aspects of theater (as well as other arts) they could use to tell their stories or make their points, and not leave it up to the directors and designers to impose that on a purely literary text. His original stage directions for The Glass Menagerie were very Brechtian in style (Williams had studied and worked with Erwin Piscator, Bertolt Brecht’s mentor), calling for decidedly plastic elements including dozens of text and image slide projections, film-like soundtrack music, and cinematic lighting dissolves and fades, but Eddie Dowling took all that plasticity out, sensing that the Broadway audience in 1944 wouldn’t accept it. John Dexter’s 1983-84 Broadway revival was the first time the Brechtian devices Dowling removed from the original production were presented to an audience, and I’ve read about some productions in the past 20 years or so that put those FX back in, but I’ve never seen one.
Almost all of Williams’s plays exist in two or more variations, usually considered an “acting” version for production and a literary version for reading. The script Williams wrote, which contained the Brechtian staging devices I described and other elements omitted from the 1944 and ’45 premières became the literary edition of Glass Menagerie, originally published by Random House (and later, New Directions, Williams’s longtime publisher). The version based on Dowling’s staging in Chicago and New York City is published as an acting text by the Dramatists Play Service. Sam Gold seems to have based his revival on the so-called literary edition of the script, though his physical production is vastly different from anything Williams described.
A production can be ”plastic”—this one isn’t—but Williams’s idea was about playwriting, not directing or producing. As I understand plasticity in theater, it really has to involve the whole production, not just the set and my impression of this production is that Gold simply plopped a perfectly acceptable straight (that is, essentially naturalistic) performance onto a rehearsal set. (Aside from Amanda’s and Laura’s party dresses, the costumes generally resemble actors’ contemporary rehearsal clothes.) Except for Laura’s “enhanced” disability, of course. Other aspects of the physical environment which Williams’s dialogue mentions but which Gold has removed are nevertheless referred to. I can’t really figure why he did any of this.
I found the vast, nearly naked stage—there’s a long, plain folding table and four chairs at center-right (not period pieces, but modern utilitarian metal furniture like you’d find in a rehearsal studio) and an old-fashioned gramophone down center-left that sits on a milk crate (no table of any kind)—isolating and ambiguous. That’s it for a set. There’s no fire escape (though it’s spoken of) and no pretense that there are neighbors, either in the building or outside: the Wingfields exist in a world of their own. The Paradise Dance Hall across the (invisible) alley, from which no music emanates here, is represented solely by a disembodied neon sign Tom hauls out form the wings. (The scenic design is from Andrew Lieberman, based on his setting for Gold’s Amsterdam production.) The rest of the stage is bare to the walls, like the Belasco probably looks when it’s dark. (Just off right is some kind of tall shelf—it was just out of full view from my seat so I could only see a sliver behind the proscenium arch—which holds all the props the actors need for various scenes, like a service station for waiters in a restaurant or a self-service backstage prop shelf. When Amanda or Tom needs something for a scene, they just walk over and get it, like when they set the table for the dinner with Jim: they traipse back and forth as they say the dialogue getting the table cloth, plates, glasses, food, etc.)
Gold directed Glass Menagerie for Ivo van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam in 2015, so I gather this is Gold’s take on what van Hove, whom Brantley called “the world’s leading practitioner of explosive theatrical minimalism,” would have done with it (though, I don’t believe van Hove went this far with either of the Arthur Millers—2015’s and ’16’s A View From the Bridge and The Crucible on Broadway—he directed recently to great acclaim). I said the production didn’t sound “plastic,” and I wouldn’t say it is really, but it may have been what Gold thinks is plastic. (I’m assuming that, first, he’s read Williams’s essay in the script and, second, he’s tried to apply the concept. Either or both of those assumptions might be false.)
I suppose there’s nothing really wrong with any of this—except it doesn’t seem to make any sense. What’s Gold’s point? Either I’m missing something (a lot), or the emperor has no clothes. The director himself stated, “I’m not very interested in pretend,” according to Sasha Weiss in the New York Times Magazine. “I’m interested in putting people onstage. I want people. And I want a world that reflects the real world.” If that’s Gold’s aim, I think he’s dead wrong: The Glass Menagerie isn’t about the “real” world—it’s about the world of memory and illusion. Tom—and Williams—tells us so. But that’s not really a point or a theme, anyway. Oddly enough, just to be clear, I didn’t hate it. I’d bet, however, that Diana would have . . . in spades!
Certainly, Gold’s Glass Menagerie, which runs two hours and five minutes without an intermission, isn’t as bad as Brantley made it seem in the Times (the headline for his review in the print edition was “Fixing What Ain’t Broken” and on line, his notice was entitled “Dismantling ‘The Glass Menagerie’”). The physical production is just weird—but the acting was actually quite fine, if a little intense. I’d love to see this cast do some kind of straight version of Glass Menagerie, even a Brechtian one like Williams originally intended. (Field has done Amanda in a different production in 2004, directed by Gregory Mosher at the Kennedy Center, the final event of the same “Tennessee Williams Explored” program at which I saw Five By Tenn, the program’s opening presentation.)
I overlooked Brantley’s mention of Ferris’s MD (the Times is the only outlet whose reviews I read before I see a show because that paper is delivered to my door), but I did read Neil Genzlinger’s piece about the actress in the Times the day after the performance. Needless to say, the revelation changed my understanding of why Laura moves the way she does in the production. (Oddly, when I was looking for a way to describe Ferris’s movements, especially getting out of her wheelchair, I thought of MD, but I don’t know enough about the symptoms of that condition so I didn’t go there.)
I don’t necessarily buy Genzlinger’s assertion of Gold’s motivation for casting Ferris and, therefore, making Laura’s disability more significant than Williams obviously intended. (In his Toneelgroep production, Gold reportedly gave that Laura a heavy brace on her leg rather than the slight limp specified in the text. There’s no indication that the Toneelgroep actress, Hélène Devos, is handicapped.) I also don’t buy that this makes Amanda simply more willfully blind (as Tom says in his opening monologue); I think it makes her delusional. If Amanda’s delusional and not just in denial, what I believe is Williams’s point in Glass Menagerie is destroyed and replaced with something else that’s no longer so universal (again, as Tom says in his monologue). Most of us are in denial about something in our lives; few of us are actually delusional.
I agree that enhancing Laura’s disability makes Jim “nobler” and more generous, but I don’t think that’s really necessary. He’s already a demonstrably kind and upright man; increasing those qualities doesn’t serve the play much. It also makes Tom much more selfish and uncaring than he is with a less-damaged Laura. Leaving a shy girl with a limp alone in the hands of a mother who’s merely in denial is one thing, but leaving a severely crippled and dependent girl in the hands of a delusional mother is almost heartless. While I imagine Williams might see himself as selfish, I don’t believe he’d portray himself as mean and uncaring—especially as we know how devoted he was to his real sister.
Now, a director has some right to reinterpret a play—especially when the writer’s dead and can’t object—but that doesn’t mean all the liberties he takes, even under the guise of artistic license, are correct or worthy. As my friend Kirk Woodward, a director himself, asks in his recent ROT article “Falsettos” (5 January), some “approaches are clever, but do they really serve the play, or do they pull our focus out of it? Is the play the thing, or do we leave mostly thinking that that director really is a clever fellow?” Artistic license doesn’t justify everything.
By the way, as for those writers whom Genzlinger cites who said Ferris “isn’t very good”—I didn’t have any problems with her performance as Laura. Within the character as the director sees her, Ferris created a credible and honest portrayal. I guess her physical limitations restrict what she can do on stage—in the realms, as Genzlinger pointed out, “of facial expressions, comic timing, physical bits”—but in Laura’s crucial scene with Jim, Ferris is fine. Additionally, Ferris is a strong and determined daughter in the face of her mother’s manipulations—for instance in the scene where Amanda shoves falsies, the “gay deceivers,” down Laura’s dress and Ferris becomes a resolute teenager resisting her mother’s machinations.
Also within Gold’s construct, the other three cast members are also commendable. Wittrock’s Jim, of course, is the play’s and production’s “most realistic character,” as Tom tells us. (Williams just describes him as a “nice, ordinary, young man.”) That’s pretty much how Wittrock plays him, quite straightforwardly, if a little more intensely than usual for the role. (I said earlier that Gold’s performers acted with greater intensity than the level at which the play’s traditionally pitched.) He drives his point about the public speaking course he touts a little harder than necessary, for instance, and his solicitude for Laura, though still ringing sincere, is so fervent that some viewers could (and did, I gather) suspect it’s cynical (and that his engagement announcement is an excuse not to become involved with Laura and the Wingfields). I didn’t—and don’t—feel that way. Jim’s a glad-hander, but he’s honest and even disingenuous, and Wittrock’s portrayal (Marilyn Stasio called it “grave kindness” in Variety) convinced me that he genuinely liked Laura in high school—not romantically but as a potential friend—and that his compliments and out-reach to her now are also real.
As Tom, Mantello (whom I haven’t seen on stage since he did Angels in America on Broadway in 1993; he’s been mostly directing these days: The Humans and Wicked, among others) makes a solid narrator—perhaps even too solid, given the ethereal nature of the part. (This older Tom didn’t bother me as it did some writers. I saw him as the Williams of post-Night of the Iguana, from the period of short plays like The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow, The Gnädiges Fräulein, and The Mutilated: the rememberer, not the remembered.) He’s separated from the world of the past not so much by the curtain of memory, but by a kind of intestinal, innate detachment, which carries over into his portrayal of the son as well. Mantello’s Tom may be a little too grounded for the dreamer Williams wrote him to be: his Tom Wingfield within the narrative, the memory, is angrier and harder than the would-be writer I imagine, but once again, that’s Gold’s interpretation of these characters and this play—it’s realer than I perceive it. In part, of course, the heightened characterization of Field’s Amanda pushes Mantello’s Tom into a more extreme posture in response—also surely part of the director’s vision.
Field (whose Broadway début in 2002 in Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, replacing Mercedes Ruehl, was the first of her now three stage appearances) reportedly gave audiences a subtle, determined, even maternal Amanda in Washington 15 years ago. For Sam Gold, the two-time Oscar- and three-time Emmy-winner has amped up the determination but left the subtlety and maternalism behind. If the Amanda Williams wrote is a misguided and self-deceived meddler in her children’s lives, Gold’s vision, realized without reservation by Field, is a true dragon lady, a destructive force who leaves ruin in her wake. The gentility and refinement of her Southern heritage has been worn away in Field’s portrayal by Depression poverty, disappointment, and worrisome children. Glimpses of the other Amanda can be seen when Field is on the phone with her DAR sisters, selling them the magazine subscriptions that are her bread and butter. Then comes all the Southern charm and friendly chattiness that Field’s Amanda has abandoned for most of her day. It’s not a sympathetic portrait, as I imagine her Kennedy Center performance was, but it’s real and not a little disheartening. Amanda Wingfield would be about 50 at the time of Glass Menagerie—how could a woman live 20 or 30 more years that way? (Edwina Williams lived to over 90.)
On Show-Score, The Glass Menagerie earned an average rating of 60 based on a tally of 54 reviews, a fairly low score. As you’ll see, the opinions leaned heavily toward the negative, and many reviewers were quite passionate in their complaints. The survey broke down into 56% positive notices, 33% negative, and 11% mixed. Show-Score’s coverage included a single top score of 95 and six 90’s, and three low scores of 10 with two 15’s. (I’ve never seen scores below 35 since I started checking Show-Score.) My round-up will include 29 reviews.
“Revisionist reboots of modern classics can open your eyes—or make them glaze over,” cautioned Joe Dziemianowicz in the Daily News (one of the reviews scored at 15). “Broadway’s stark, stripped-back new take on ‘The Glass Menagerie’ starring Sally Field lands, alas, in the latter category.” Dziemianowicz explained: Williams’s “masterwork has never emerged smaller, flatter or less poignant.” The Newsman added, “On paper, it’s intriguing. In practice, it makes for a disjointed ‘Glass’ that is empty of emotion and impact. Intimacy gets lost when actors seem to be in different plays.” He even suggested that the “actors don’t connect” to the play, finding fault with Mantello (“too tic-y by half”), Wittrock (“one-note eager-beaver-y”), and Ferris (“a newcomer whose lack of experience shows”)—though he acknowledged that Field “fares best and holds her own in a low-key, mostly drawl-free performance.” Of Laura’s final defiance over the candles, Dziemianowicz declared: “I’m with her: The naysaying Laura mirrored my response to the evening.”
In the Wall Street Journal, Edward Rothstein dubbed Sam Gold the “dramaturgical counterpart” of Laura Wingfield, who finds “reality . . . too painful.” Gold’s “apparently unhappy with reality as well—the play’s reality,” charged Rothstein. “So he creates a world of artifice more suited to his tastes.” His previous forays into auteurship “did not set off too many alarm bells, but here the effect is unmistakable.” (This is one of the notices that Show-Score rated at 10.) To start with, the WSJ reviewer asserted, “Andrew Lieberman’s bare-bones design . . . is distracting rather than revealing” and then Rothstein questioned at some length the rationale for casting an actress with MD: it “follows doctrines of identity-politics,” he asserted. The individual performances don’t fare much better in Rothstein’s estimation: Field is “surprisingly disappointing”; Ferris, who “has never been in a professionally staged play,” “barely hints at Laura’s shifting wisps of hope, shame and despair.” The review-writer’s conclusion? “Mr. Gold’s preferred figurine here is not glass, but leaden and sodden, presumably to highlight its 21st-century spunk. And his.”
Brantley’s Times review (rated at 45) began with, “That shattering sound you hear coming from the Belasco Theater is the celebrated director Sam Gold taking a hammer to everything that’s delicate in ‘The Glass Menagerie.’” He continued this metaphor:
Don’t expect these [‘jagged, glistening shards of Tennessee Williams’s breakthrough play’] to be reassembled into an illuminating portrait of the anguished Wingfield family from this 1944 drama. Mr. Gold and his cast, led by an intrepid Sally Field, have dismantled a venerable classic, but darned if they can figure out how to put it back together again.
Brantley believes that Gold “wants the flat-out truth, raw and bleeding, and hang all that illusion business,” which “means scrapping Williams’s lyricism, too, and every theatrical trick he uses to conjure the fragile web of a man’s recalling a past he longs to forget.” The Timesman observed, “As you may have inferred, this is a production in which subtext elbows text out of bounds.” He describes the production as “less a thought-through interpretation than a sustained scene-study class” in which individual elements, which may even have integrity on their own, “fail to connect in meaningful ways.” In the end, Brantley complained:
On occasion, Mr. Gold’s interpretation takes on the vicious aspect of a nightmare in which you see your past at its distorted worst. But even that vision is not sustained. When a plot turn plunges the theater into abject darkness late in the play, it only gives literal life to what you’ve been feeling all along.
Of the performances, the Times reviewer said, “Ms. Field gives us a grim, angry, kitchen-sink Everymom” and detecting “inklings of Woody Allen in Mr. Mantello’s line readings,” Brantley felt he “seems distanced from the past not only by the years but also by a flippant detachment.” In contrast, “Ms. Ferris, who emanates a no-nonsense spirit of independence,” the Timesman found, “is the least pitiable Laura I have seen.” He rounded out the cast by stating, “Mr. Wittrock gives the most conventional, and vital, performance in the production, exuding an only slightly exaggerated air of shaky all-American confidence.”
Linda Winer of Long Island’s Newsday said of this Glass Menagerie in her “Bottom Line”: “Radical, riveting rethinking of beloved classic.” (The Newsday notice received a score of 90 on Show-Score.) She asked, “Why does Broadway need another revival of Tennessee Williams’ familiar masterwork?” and then answered herself: “The ‘Glass Menagerie’ that Sam Gold staged with the equally magnificent Sally Field, Joe Mantello, Finn Wittrock and the especially remarkable Madison Ferris is like none we have seen before.” She specified:
The style is not poetic, the edges are not soft nor dreamlike, and the heart-shredding family dynamics are not literally placed in the St. Louis tenement that Williams set in the ’30s. And yet, the unspooling . . . is as true to what Williams called a “memory play” as any I have known.
Comparing Gold’s mounting to an indie film, Winer characterized it as “timelessly contemporary and shot full of raw insight into past and future productions.”
In am New York, Matt Windman described the Broadway revival of Glass Menagerie (in a review that earned a Show-Score rating of 35) as “misconceived,” asserting that the production has brought Gold’s “winning streak . . . to a screeching halt.” After having stripped out all the traditional appurtenances of the play, Windman asserted that all that remains “is a painfully self-aware production that is devoid of Williams’ trademark lyricism.” Field’s Amanda exudes “a strong whiff of kitchen sink realism” and Ferris’s Laura, though “an interesting but questionable interpretation,” declared Windman, “is commendable” as “self-assured instead of delicate.”
Max McGuinness declared of the production in the U.S. edition of the Financial Times that the “sense of quiet, brittle despair is heightened here by Sam Gold’s stripped-back, decontextualised staging.” In a review that Show-Score rated 80, McGuinness praised the costume (the cast is “dressed much as they would be if you found them in Starbucks”) and set (“the stage is empty save for some nondescript furniture and a gramophone”) concepts and the performances, especially “the play’s candlelit final scenes, which hum with ghostly intensity.” In the U.S. edition of the Guardian, also an 80-scored notice, Alexis Soloski characterized Gold’s revival as “a cerebral, often surprising deconstruction and reinvestigation of an American classic.” Soloski warned us that we “might think they’ve muddled the address” when we enter the Belasco Theatre because “at times [the interpretation is] wilfully at odds with the play as written, particularly its stage directions.” She declared of Gold’s style:
Throughout, the production swirls realistic gestures with more expressionist ones. The theatricality is self-conscious, at times self-congratulatory. It estranges spectators from the characters and the situations—in ways more and less productive—but still allows much of the language to be heard clearly and anew.
“As the play continues,” the Guardian reviewer continued, “it marshals a stealthy emotional force,” adding that “Field portrays Amanda with sympathy and genteel bluster.” Ferris’s actual handicap “deepens and complicates [Laura’s] relationship with Tom, though Soloski felt “the production asks her body to do too much of the work of the role” because of the actor’s inexperience.
Christopher Kelly of the Newark Star-Ledger declared: “This is not a traditional take on the 1944 classic,” which means “one distracting directorial flourish after another, until you’re pretty much ready to cry uncle.” (Show-Score rated the notice 35.) Kelly explained, “But beneath the weight of Gold’s interpolations, the . . . delicate ‘The Glass Menagerie’ . . . collapses.” He added that “too often we’re pulled out of the experience of the show.” On the acting, the Star-Ledger reviewer pronounced, “With one marked exception, the casting feels wrong. Field often looks lost on the giant stage, and offers a mostly one-note interpretation of Amanda.” Mantello’s Tom “comes off as too wise and measured” and Wittrock “works way too hard to come across as appealing and adorably earnest.” In contrast, Kelly asserted, “The best thing about the show is Ferris,” who “performs with plainspoken grace and heartbreaking vulnerability,” since it’s “the one directorial flourish of Gold’s that really works, because her presence deepens and complicates the meaning of the original material.” Ferris’s performance is “a stirring breath of fresh air in a show that otherwise feels conceptualized to its death.” The review-writer concluded that “everything else about the production just calls attention to itself.”
Robert Feldberg remarked in the Record of Bergen County, New Jersey, “Asking an audience to use its imagination is a good thing, but sometimes there’s a gap too far.” Gold is “stripping away of anything not connected to the memories of Tom Wingfield,” noted Feldberg, who then devoted the rest of his review (which was rated a “mixed” 55) to the actors. Field is “proficient if not distinctive” and though “Mantello gives the evening’s best performance,” judged Feldberg, casting an actor in his mid-50’s in a role usually played by a 30-something actor made it difficult to “accept him as Amanda’s son, or the brother of Laura.” But the Record reviewer declared, “Gold’s most daring staging and casting” is Ferris as Laura. Feldberg found that “in this production, the woes of the Wingfield family take second place to the experience of watching the bravery and determination of a young actress.”
The Village Voice’s Michael Feingold, in a review that earned a middling 70, explained:
Some are complaining that Sam Gold’s new production of The Glass Menagerie . . . has somehow robbed Williams’s most familiar play of its poetry. Maybe that’s true if you equate poetry exclusively with the magical and moonlit side of life. But for me . . . The Glass Menagerie’s poetic strength lies in its realistic harshness and pain . . . . The play’s poetry lies in its harsh, tormenting facts. Odd that so many theatergoers have come to regard it as some sort of delicate daydream.
Feingold names two “questionable choices” as director, the second of which is the realistic indoor rain storm which soaks the stage and the actors: “an intrusive directorial metaphor in a production otherwise valuable precisely because it eschews fancy-dress metaphors.” The other “distracting directorial choice” is casting Ferris as Laura, “not because of any artistic limitations . . ., but because her situation in effect rewrites Williams’s conception of Laura.”
In the New York Observer, Rex Reed quipped angrily: “No, they are not blasting for a new subway under the Belasco Theater. The noise you hear is the sound of a mortified Tennessee Williams, turning over in his grave over what pretentious hack director Sam Gold has done to his great memory play.” Calling the production an “arrogant experimental bore,” Reed declared that Gold has “dismantled and shredded [the play] for kindling in a production that is different for the sake of being different.” The Observer reviewer asserted that crediting the scenic design and lighting to Lieberman and Silverman “is a head-scratcher, since there is no set at all” and “most of the play takes place in such darkness that you can’t see what’s going on half the time (a blessing in disguise).” Labeling the revival “abominable!” Reed described it as “[s]tripped of its poetry, the rich lyricism of America’s greatest playwright is reduced to the rubble of words that sound alarmingly banal.” The review-writer complained about so much of the production, which he dubbed a “dark, depressing revisionist rehauling” without “clarity of vision and control of tone,” that I can’t fathom how it earned as high a score as 30. Reed’s only pleasure came from the Gentleman Caller scene, which was “well played with dash, wit and humane benevolence by Finn Wittrock”—except the reviewer wondered “why is it staged entirely in the dark?” Reed concluded, “For the most part, [Gold’s Glass Menagerie] comes off as a hopelessly half-baked endeavor to change and cheapen a seminal classic for the sole purpose of being different. It doesn’t work. Tennessee Williams is different enough already.”
In his 85-rated review in New York magazine, Jesse Green labeled Gold’s revival “a rigorously de-romanticized, contemporary rethinking”—and even cites Williams’s production notes to justify the “nakedly, bracingly theatrical” reimagining. “By paring everything extraneous from the mise en scène,” asserted Green, “Gold and his designers . . . are preparing the audience to embrace the exploratory nature of the production.” The man from New York acknowledged, “One of the casualties of this approach is what Tom calls ‘the social background’ of the play”; instead, we get “a novel and largely convincing interpretation of the family’s warfare as a symptom of the powerful but constraining love they share.” Field depicts Amanda as “a spirited, practical mother stuck with impossible children” and she gives “even finer performance when her ‘charm — and vivacity — and charm!’ are stripped away.” Mantello provides a “daring take [on Tom as] more of a feckless brat: prone to sarcasm and not so much poetically sad as grumpily guilty” and Green “noticed [that] he is complicit in the family tragedy.” Ferris doesn’t play Laura as “the morbidly shy and self-negating girl Williams describes; she’s resigned and mordant.” Wittrock gives a “winning performance.” Green’s final estimation was:
[Gold’s] new perspective . . . creates a tension that, on the good side, wonderfully opens the play up to view. Being forced out of its familiar ruts makes the play tell different stories. On the problematic side, Gold’s readjustments posit a kind of ghost play next to Williams’s: a play that’s just as interesting but somewhat distorted.
In the New Yorker, Hilton Als lamented bitterly in the second of Show-Score’s lowest-rated notices:
The despair and disgust I felt after seeing the director Sam Gold’s rendition of Tennessee Williams’s 1944 play, “The Glass Menagerie” (at the Belasco), was so debilitating that I couldn’t tell if my confused, hurt fury was caused by the pretentious and callous staging I had just witnessed or if my anger was a result of feeling robbed of the beauty of Williams’s script.
“The first problem in a production rife with problems,” Als complained, “is that Gold makes clear his desire to leave his mark on the play—at all costs, including the play itself.” The New Yorker review-writer blamed this attack on the influence of Ivo van Hove’s style: “a ‘radical’ approach to text and performance that promotes the director as the true star of a production, over the script and the actors.” He questioned whether the sparseness of the setting is “an effort to underline, perhaps, the poverty of the times, or the strained poverty of this show’s imagination” and asserted that “all the actors tear through the script with little care for what is being said or how to say it.” In general, Als criticized, “You get the sense that what interests him most is the idea of being ‘serious’ in a European way.” The reviewer’s final judgment is that “in ‘Menagerie,’ Gold puts a stop to the language by inserting himself and his own intellect where the Wingfields should be.” He seemed to see this as an indication that “Gold felt he could reduce the script itself to a memory, too, and choreograph scenes according to what it all means—to him. Sorry. He is no match for Williams.”
David Rooney described this Broadway Glass Menagerie in the Hollywood Reporter has “a bold experiment that’s often riveting but seldom wholly satisfying” which “rips away illusion like a bandage off a wound—along with other signatures of the playwright such as poetry, magic, artifice—in a forensic examination that fights against the text.” The HR reviewer added that “in twisting Williams’ incomparable voice into the service of Director’s Theater, he has allowed the fresh insights to be overshadowed by the losses.” Rooney warned, “Despite some fine work from the actors, you end up being moved more by the sheer resilience of the writing than by the intrusive presentation.” But he demurred a little, acknowledging, “That’s not to say this destined-to-be-divisive production doesn’t demand to be seen, not least for the chance to watch Sally Field uncover the raw, wrenching despair beneath the abrasive nagging of her tenacious Amanda.” (Rooney’s review scored a “mixed” 65.) The review-writer criticized the performances (except “superb” Wittrock) and found that “the starkness of the theatrical concept here calls attention to itself and mostly keeps us shut out.” Rooney concluded, “The result is one of the most hauntingly lyrical dramas in the American canon transformed into a blunt dysfunctional family play in which indelible melancholy gets trampled by anger and bitterness.”
Entertainment Weekly’s Maya Stanton declared (in a notice that received a score of 90) that of all the many Broadway productions of Glass Menagerie, “it’s safe to say that audiences have never seen a version quite like this before.” Gold “applies an innovative yet back-to-basics take on” the play and, with “a top-notch cast and crew,” delivers “a stunning, emotionally rending production.” Having “stacked the deck with acting talent,” the director makes it “obvious that this is a much-needed fresh perspective on the show—and it only gets better from” from Tom’s opening monologue. Among his praises for all the actors and their interpretation of the characters, Stanton especially applauded Ferris, whom she dubbed a “revelation,” for bringing “an element of realism and independence to a character normally played as helpless.” She also lauded the design team of Lieberman (“the stripped-down set and clever effects ”), Silverman (“the ingenious lighting”), and Dziedzic (“the visual punchline of Amanda’s wardrobe”), who “knocks it out of the park.” Stanton concluded:
Gold takes risks with his nontraditional staging choices, and though his vision might not be for everyone, there’s no arguing that it’s a bold, creative one. The rare revival that breathes new life into a classic rather than defaulting to convention, this Menagerie is well worth another look.
In Time Out New York, David Cote labeled Gold’s revival of Glass Menagerie as “starkly compelling, bravely executed,” what the man from TONY called “the 3M Plan: minimal, metatheatrical, modern dress.” He surmised that “forcing us to look seems to be part of Gold’s tactic.” Cote, too, praised the designers (adding compliments for Bray Poor’s soundscape), and compliments the actors, even though he found that that they’re “all over the map,” guessing that this was intended “perhaps to suggest family members trapped in different worlds.” The reviewer summed his 85-rated review up with:
For all this production’s cerebral choices and cold, distancing design, the emotional impact is there: love, disgust, betrayal, shame and the longing for understanding. Yes, Menagerie is memory, and I’ll not soon forget this shockingly fresh frame and angle.
Marilyn Stasio asserted in Variety :
Of all the plays in the American canon, “The Glass Menagerie” seems a most unlikely candidate for deconstruction. But that doesn’t deter director Sam Gold . . . from laying hands on this Tennessee Williams gem and subjecting it to a severe reinterpretation . . . .
Stasio continued (in a notice that Show-Score scored at 40), “Like the stage setting, Williams’s play has been stripped to the gut, shorn of its lyrical accoutrements and reduced to its raw text.” The Variety writer judged that such a “strategy that might illuminate other dramas disregards the fact that these embellishments . . . are intrinsic . . . especially to an intimate ‘memory play’ like this one.” In Gold’s production, she found that “the poetry is not quite lost, but diluted.” Nonetheless, Stasio reported that the candlelight scene between Wittrock’s Jim and Ferris’s Laura “illuminates the soul of his heartbreaking play.”
On the airwaves, Jennifer Vanasco asserted on WNYC, “Director Sam Gold is a genius at creating intimacy on stage,” having demonstrated it previously with Fun Home, which won him a Tony, and “he does it again” in Glass Menagerie. “But here, it backfires.” The reviewer on the New York City outlet for National Public Radio observed that “under Gold’s hand, the family feels cozy, not claustrophobic, which [raises] the question of why Tom is so eager to leave.” The characters’ intimacy, however, contrasts with “the giant, nearly-empty stage, with the actors lit harshly and wearing contemporary clothing. There’s no coziness there.” The production’s “literal-ism . . . pulls the poetry away from Williams’ play.” Though Vanasco, whose notice scored 45, appreciated the “beautiful stage pictures” of the rainstorm and the candlelight scene, she thought “the overall effect is as if Gold is just trying out a bunch of ideas.” She concluded, “There isn’t a cohesive vision. We are left, instead, with a play that’s been pulled apart and analyzed and seems to be waiting for someone to put it back together again.”
On WNBC, the network’s television outlet in New York City, Robert Kahn reported, “Gold puts his stamp on ‘Menagerie’ with both hyper-realistic elements and a minimalist set so barren it can only leave us to focus on the actors.” Impressed with both the acting and the production design, his review, which Show-Score rated at 80, concluded that “the juxtaposition of styles makes this ‘Menagerie’ as interesting as any I’ve seen.” Roma Torre’s review on NY1, the news channel of Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable), which scored a 30, began with the declaration that Gold’s “bizarre conceptual take on” the play “may be best left forgotten.” Torre acknowledged that Glass Menagerie need not be “all that realistic,” adding, “But what Gold has devised is quite confounding.” The NY1 reviewer explained: “Part of the problem is that his directorial decisions are so radical in some cases they take the audience out of the play’s poetic reverie.” Furthermore, “The production’s selective reality seems curiously random,” she added. “Individually, Field, Mantello and Finn Wittrock as the Gentleman Caller do excellent work,” Torre reported, “but stylistically the cast doesn’t mesh all that well.” Like me, the cable reviewer mused, “I can only imagine what they could have done in a more coherent production.” Her final assessment, though, was harsh: “I applaud any director's efforts to reimagine the classics, but this production never got beyond the experimental stage, and should have been left in the rehearsal room.”
In cyberspace, Michele Willens of Theatre Reviews Limited labeled Gold’s revival of Glass Menagerie “controversial and fascinating” with the director’s “wildly inventive choices.” Willens reported in her 75-rated review, “The minimalist staging . . . works here, as this is a family that does not have much. The lighting . . . may initially cause discomfort, but it is appropriate.” The TRL review-writer praised the acting of Mantello, but found Wittrock “goofy and over-confident”; Willens also thought casting Ferris was “slightly exploitive” and was “not convinced it aptly fits the playwright’s intentions.” As for Field, however, the reviewer dubbed her “a sure Tony nominee, who has given us a sympathetic and contemporary-feeling Amanda.” Willens concluded, “This is not a “Glass Menagerie” for everyone. . . . But with an open mind, you will most likely find it moving.”
On TheaterScene, Victor Gluck blamed Ivo van Hove for making his minimalist technique “look easy” so that “American directors are now attempting to copy his methods without entirely understanding them or without thinking them through.” Gold’s Glass Menagerie revival “is such a one,” Gluck declared. He’s removed “all of the historical relevance as well as the scenery” and he’s removed “all of the poetry and all of the emotion.” In a notice that scored only a 40, Gluck complained, “At times it appears that the production has simply thrown out the script and done it their way.” He found fault with the performances of Mantello (“he seems angry and bitter which gives the play a slightly sour note”), Ferris (“hard to believe that her Laura would have been undone by her life experiences”), and Wittrock (“suavely bland”), but pronounced Field’s Amanda “a lovely performance” which Gold “does everything he can to sabotage.” The TS reviewer asserted, “Stripped of its poetry, The Glass Menagerie loses most of the magic that Williams’ play embodies and simply becomes an acting and director’s workout . . . . It seems to have been attempted simply for the sake of trying something new.” Gluck’s final estimation is a warning that “if you love the play, you will want to give this production a miss—unless you wish to see it in a form you never imagined possible.”
Donna Herman described the Broadway production of Glass Menagerie on New York Theatre Guide as “stripped down and pared back” and cited Gold’s interest “in only one thing, really. People,” as the rationale for his approach. But the NYTG reviewer lamented that “in his effort to understand the humans in front of him, Mr. Gold has taken them out of context and lost them, and the audience in the process.” On Broadway World, Michael Dale, calling the current revival “exquisite,” warned that spectators “may think they’ve stumbled onto a run-through in the middle of the rehearsal process.” Dale’s review received a score of 85, and he has praise for all the actors as well as Gold’s interpretations of the characters. The BWW review-writer’s general assessment of the production was, “While Gold does work a bit of stagecraft into the production before the final blackout, the evening’s brightest spotlight is on the words of Tennessee Williams, as played by an excellent ensemble.” He concluded, “This grounded version of THE GLASS MENAGERIE is fully absorbing and thrilling in its simplicity.”
CurtainUp’s Elyse Sommer warned theatergoers at the top of her 30-rated notice that “Sam Gold’s The Glass Menagerie may be more than they bargained for.” Sommer complained about Gold’s giving “himself permission to ignore the often striking inconsistency between words on the page and what’s seen on stage.” (She found this most disturbing in scenes involving Ferris’s Laura.) The CU reviewer, however, thought, “Despite . . . poor choices . . ., this Glass Menagerie is intriguingly different and never boring.” Still, Sommer found that Gold’s emulation of van Hove “is so extreme that the directorial vision has upstaged the author’s poetic magic.” She had mixed feelings about the cast and reported that “ultimately this cast fails to merge into a satisfactorily coherent and cohesive production.” Sommer’s overall evaluation of the experience was: “While even Mr. Gold’s most mouth-agape choices couldn’t assail this virtually indestructible play, what ultimately held my attention was seeing just what bizarre business he would come up with next, and how the actors dealt with it.”
In one of Show-Score’s lowest-rated reviews (15), Matthew Murray on Talkin’ Broadway started off with a compliment:
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 [many diverse plays] into sumptuous experiences that, at their best, are about far more than themselves.
Then Murray let loose with his “however”: “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.” He asserted that “the decoration, the artifice, and the gimmickry aren’t just most of the thing, they’re the whole thing” and complained: “Rather than dig into core of what Tennessee Williams was trying to convey . . ., 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.” Set designer Lieberman “has cranked up the volume on nothingness,” “Dziedzic’s costumes are downscale contemporary dress,” and Silverman’s lights “are unforgiving, veering violently between everything and nothing”; only Poor’s sound “dares consider subtlety as an option.” Gold, said Murray, “has fallen into [the] trap” of making “a production . . . more about itself than the play” so it “is as likely as not to war with Williams’s intent.” The TB reviewer admonished, “Innovation at the expense of the play is no virtue, however, and none of what Gold adds brings us any closer to Williams.” His bottom line was that “by making his production the destination rather than the vehicle, Gold obscured most of the magic the play can have at its best.”
On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart cautioned, “This isn’t the memory play we remember,” explaining that “Gold makes some baffling choices to undermine the power of Williams’ story, leaving us pining for better productions.” In a review that scored only 40, the TM reviewer nonetheless found excellence in the work of Field (“plays Amanda with the passion and specificity of a woman who has been preparing for this role for a lifetime”) and Mantello (“grounds the play in memory”). In the end, however, Stewart found the production “an awfully contemptuous take on one of the most enduring dramas of the American theater.”
“I have to admit that I was at first deeply ambivalent about Sam Gold’s new staging of the classic Tennessee Williams play,” began JK Clarke in his 95-scored review on Theater Pizzazz. “On one hand,” Clarke explained, “the painful accounting of a faded, woeful southern belle . . .,’ is minimally staged with bold performances to great effect. On the other,” the reviewer continued, “Gold has created a voyeuristic production that alienates the players and makes the audience complicit in a social sideshow.” Ultimately the TP writer decided, “I have to conclude that both of those sentiments are the result of a thoughtful and creative staging of an expertly written work that transcends time and place.” Clarke characterized both Field’s and Wittrock’s performances as “stellar” and summed up the experience as, “We walk away, like Tom, with heavy hearts.”
Michael Giltz of the Huffington Post, which scored a 90 on Show-Score, declared unequivocally that Gold’s revival of Glass Menagerie “is the best I’ve ever seen.” Giltz went on to say that “this stripped-down presentation has an emotional truthfulness and clarity that turns the play from a showcase for one actress into a work of drama unburdened by Southern floridness.” The HP reviewer continued that “it’s shot through with intelligence and nuance and is all the more powerful for it.” He lauded the performances and, specifically, the realism brought to the production, otherwise starkly anti-realistic, by the presence of Ferris. Giltz summed up his assessment by asserting, “This isn’t a precious Menagerie or an extreme one. It doesn’t scale the mountaintops because it shouldn’t.”
[In both “Falsettos” and his earlier report, “A Note About Hamilton” (6 December 2016), Kirk applies a term for misguided production concepts he identifies as Eric Bentley’s: the “Bright Idea.” It seems to me that that’s what has governed Sam Gold’s mounting of The Glass Menagerie, and I ought to say a few more words on the subject. In a 1952 essay from the New Republic, “I Have a Bright Idea” (in What Is Theatre?), Bentley introduces this term and defines it:
A Bright Idea is an invalid idea which has more appeal to the semi-literate mind than a valid one . . . . It is a thought which can’t bear thinking about; but which is all the more influential on that account; it surprises or reassures, it flatters or inflames; if it cannot earn the simple epithet “true” it frequently receives the more characteristically modern eulogy “intriguing” or at least “interesting.” At the very worst it is praised as “cute.”
[Bentley provides what he considers “a miniature, but perfect, example” of the Bright Idea from George Bernard Shaw’s correspondence with Mrs. Patrick Campbell. After seeing the actress in Macbeth, the great dramatist wrote: “I couldn’t understand the sleepwalking until D. D. [unidentified] told me someone had told you that Lady Macbeth should be seen through a sheet of glass.”
[“That sheet of glass,” explains Bentley, “is the very archetype of theatrical Bright Ideas, and for every window-breaker, there are half a dozen glaziers, calling themselves directors or teachers of acting.”
[A Bright Idea, says Bentley, “may be a true idea: all that’s wrong is that it doesn’t apply to matter at hand.” Kirk says it doesn’t feel “organic,” which I think is what Bentley means here. “In context it is only a Bright Idea,” the renowned critic and essayist concludes. This, to me, is where Gold’s Glass Menagerie sits. He had the Bright Idea of making the play about “real people,” to “reflect the real world.” He followed through relentlessly, stripping away everything that’s true and meaningful in the play for the sake of making a statement the playwright never meant to make. The world of Glass Menagerie is no more real than Laura’s unicorn.
[One last comment on this subject. Bentley asserts in his essay: “Ours is an age of substitutes: instead of language, we have jargon; instead of principles, slogans; instead of genuine ideas, Bright Ideas. Bright Ideas win elections . . . .” I wonder if that thought makes anyone besides me think of anyone in particular.]