Compare and Contrast

To go along with my long post below about the current revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, check out this doozy of a review of the other revival going on right now – of Glass Menagerie starring Jessica Lange and Christian Slater. This casting struck me from the moment it was announced a couple months ago as odd and not quite right.

If you’re interested in why I think Ben Brantley is terrific, read both the reviews. You’ll see what I mean.

Check out the first sentence of the review:

Memory, which is notorious for playing tricks on people, pulls off some doozies in the narcoticized production of Tennessee Williams’s “Glass Menagerie,” which opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. As staged by David Leveaux, this revival suggests that to recollect the past is to see life as if it had occurred underwater, in some viscous sea through which people swim slowly and blindly.

If they only had asked ME what I felt about Jessica Lange as Amanda and Christian Slater as Tom (all I can say is: what, are you people on crack??) – then they would never have had to hear Brantley say:

Unfortunately, that includes the show’s luminous but misdirected and miscast stars: the two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange, who brings a sleepy, neurotic sensuality to the role of the vital and domineering Amanda Wingfield, and Christian Slater, who plays her poetical son, Tom, as a red-hot roughneck. Within its first 15 minutes, you feel the entire production sinking into a watery grave.

Tom a “red-hot roughneck”? In what universe? The I’m-on-crack universe?

The ensemble is asked to compete with mood music (by Dan Moses Schreier) that suggests someone playing popular tunes (including Irving Berlin’s “Always”) on the rims of water-filled glasses through an amplifier. Worse, much of the action occurs behind lacy curtains, so the cast members are often seen only in silhouette. The overall visual effect is rather like that of an Italian Vogue, proclaiming that the 1940’s are back in fashion.

Here’s the thing: Although Elia Kazan did not direct Glass Menagerie, he became famous for directing Tennessee Williams’ delicate and sensitive plays. Kazan was a a notable rough-and-tough womanizing muscular Greek, There is much to be said for the idea that without Kazan’s empowering influence, Williams’ early works might have drowned in their own lacy-edged nostalgia. Kazan brought a pulsing sense of theatrical REALITY to Williams’ “memory plays”, and without that sense of reality, Williams’ stuff can come off as way too precious. I applaud Kazan for pushing Williams’ plays to that next level, for recognizing that beneath Williams’ paper curtains, and romantic language, was a pulsing beating throbbing human heart.

Sounds like this current production makes all the mistakes in the book.

My acting teacher who cannot stand Jessica Lange (he talks about Jessica Lange the way I talk about Renee Zellweger) will feel quite vindicated to read the following:

Undulating by herself to the distant strains of dance hall music, or mistily recalling her glory days as the beau-besieged belle of her girlhood, Ms. Lange is less the image of Amanda than of another great Williams character. That’s Blanche DuBois, the illusion-addled heroine of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a role Ms. Lange played in her last appearance on Broadway in 1992.

Amanda is not Blanche. You cannot interchange the Williams female characters, and Tennessee Williams always got annoyed and antsy when he saw actresses do that. He didn’t want these characters to be seen as generalities, or as commentary on something else, or representations of something … They were characters, plain and simple.

Amanda and Blanche are at opposite ends of the spectrum. And what about Miss Alma from Summer and Smoke? Yes, they’re all women and they’re all written by Tennessee Williams. But there the similarity ends.

Amanda is a fantasist, like Blanche is, but her motivations are completely different. Amanda longs for upward mobility, and so her fantasies go back into the past, when she had 17 gentlemen callers in one day, and life was good and she had hope. She hadn’t married yet. She hadn’t married the telephone repairman who “fell in love with long-distance”. So she looks back on her girlish youth with fondness. She can’t believe that her own daughter, Laura, is so socially inept. How could SHE, the belle of the ball, have created such a wallflower? To anyone with a brain, it would be obvious that Laura will NEVER be the belle of the ball. Not ever. Not in your wildest dreams. She is plain not cut out for it. Not only does she have a limp, but she also prefers to hang out with glass animals, she is unable to speak in the presence of others … I mean, she’s a sympathetic character, you feel for her, but let’s be honest. The chick has some problems. Amanda refuses to see this.

All of this is specific and engrained in AMANDA. Blanche creates a fantasy because she’s mad, because she is running FROM her past, not running TOWARDS her past (a la Amanda). Blanche was the town whore. Blanche was responsible for the suicide of her young gay lover. Blanche dresses up in her old gowns, and puts up paper lanterns so that no one can see how she has aged, but in reality, she is a woman filled with demons. She is a woman living in a nightmare. She was a whore once, but now she makes Mitch behave as though she is a virginal young belle. She wants to erase the past. She’s a complete mess. She moons about in her old gowns, making up stories about who she used to be, lying and lying and lying … until finally, the facade cracks, and she ends up in a mental institution.

This would never be Amanda’s fate. Amanda is too much of a realist. She’s got too much rage and self-pity. She’s got a SELF, if you know what I mean. Blanche’s self is completely artifical. She’s tragic.

Misty self-absorption would be appropriate for Blanche DuBois, but is not appropriate at all for Amanda. That kind of secretly smiling self-absorption has served Jessica Lange beautifully well in movie after movie and yet has consistently tripped her up when she takes to the stage. She only knows how to work in close-up. I happen to disagree with my acting teacher’s vicious assessment of her, although I can see why he feels the way he does. I thought she was great in Frances – I think that will probably be her best-remembered performance. But it doesn’t translate.

It could be argued (by a deconstructionist in a really good mood) that since everyone in “The Glass Menagerie” is lonely, this medley of conflicting acting styles appropriately underscores the characters’ isolation. But the sum effect is without emotional impact. The situation is hardly improved by Mr. Leveaux’s having all the Wingfields caressing, kissing and clutching one another as much as they do. Incest is not what Williams had in mind here, even as a subtext.

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1 Response to Compare and Contrast

  1. Stevie says:

    Just saw the Broadway DVD featuring all those great interviews about B-way’s heyday, and then they get to the Laurette Taylor part — gulp — and one great performer after another (okay, Kaye Ballard, too) talked about seeing her in The Glass Menagerie, her magic, her phenomenal ability to seem like a “real person.” Then HER SCREEN TEST! I’d never seen it before. She searches for the name of someone she wants to quote, then remembers (Rosetti), then quotes him . . . it’s magnificent.

    Jessica Lange, I knew Laurette Taylor; Laurette Taylor was a friend of mine; you are no Laurette Taylor.

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