05/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

First Nighter: Tennessee Williams's Glass Menagerie Shattered

If I had known nothing about The Glass Menagerie -- Tennessee Williams's great New York Drama Critics Circle prize-winning 1945 work -- before being exposed to Gordon Edelstein's current Roundabout Theatre production, I'm shocked to report I would have decided before the first act ended that what I was witnessing was an exercise in tediously self-indulgent nostalgia.

Indeed, if I were coming to The Glass Menagerie cold -- if I were unaware of its having put the dramatist on the literary map as World War II was drawing to a close, if I were totally uniformed about Laurette Taylor's indelible (though sadly never filmed) performance as the addled and tyrannical Amanda Wingfield -- I'd have concluded that the presentation of a flibbertigibbet mother relentlessly berating her physically impaired daughter and incipiently alcoholic son wasn't the stuff of unforgettable theater evenings and might not require my waiting around for the second act to see how it all turned out.

But Williams's memory play -- his painfully desperate attempt to come to terms with recollections of a Southern-belle mother and a disturbed but beloved sister Rose -- is a major achievement, a poetic rendering of an inescapable past through the delicate filter of deceptive but unavoidably compulsive recall. In an irony that perhaps only theater allows, its fragility is its strength -- a condition implied in the play's title reference to the symbolic glass animals cherished by the crippled and cripplingly shy daughter.

So how did Edelstein go so wrong in bringing this highlight of 20-century American writing to the stage again? In any number of ways -- the first of which is his perfectly ludicrous removal of the play from the setting in which Williams took great efforts to place it. (To understand the author's intentions, read the explicit opening stage directions.) Instead of keeping the play within the shifting confines of the Wingfield's shabbily-genteel St. Louis apartment where Tom (Patch Darragh) sees himself, his mother Amanda (Judith Ivey) and sister Laura (Keira Keeley) grappling with one another's exhausting short-comings, Edelstein transplants them to a cheap hotel room (unrealistically large as designed by Michael Yeargan) where Tom is typing his script or endlessly scribbling notes for it as he imagines his relatives and an eventual gentleman caller (Michael Mosley) reliving their soul-shattering encounters.

What Edelstein's jaw-droppingly egregious liberty instantly leads to is an attenuated introductory scene in which the older Tom enters his room, sets a bottle down at the desk holding his typewriter, thinks to turn on the radio, decides on a record instead and only eventually begins typing. Once this pointlessly-extended stage-wait concludes and the other figures begin enacting scenes from the long ago, Tom alternates between participating in them or distractingly mouthing words along with them as he types or hovers in the shadow taking dictation.

(On the subject of the play's autobiographical nature: Don't forget the St. Louis-raised Williams was Tom before he was Tennessee.)

Nothing is gained through this arrogant re-imagining of the scenes, whereas what's lost, as Edelstein encourages his actors to stretch the rhythms in going about their stage business, is the poetry. And Williams's poetry is not cheaply sentimental, prettifying--it's harsh, as it uses illusion to strip away illusion. Bereft of the poetic aura, the action becomes mundane, the characters plodding, the longeurs lulls rather than memory's silent music.

Where this leaves the cast is out on a imperiled limb. Repeating her Long Wharf performance (as are Darragh and Keeley), Ivey creates a recognizable woman, a parent concerned with her children's future but unable to communicate her concerns reassuringly. But though determinedly pushing along in Martin Pakledinaz's shabby '30s wardrobe, Ivey isn't entirely recognizable as Williams's drowning-in-the-past Amanda. She's too practical, too lacking in the poetic sweep of Williams's inspired words.

As Tom, Darragh overacts from start to finish, which is partly his fault and partly Edelstein's. Having him stagger around and sometimes gesticulate wildly with his pants at his ankles during one of Tom's inebriated bouts enhances little about his revisiting the images haunting him. Keeley, on the other hand, is an effective Laura, although her limp isn't entirely convincing. She's at her best in the second-act vignette where she and the appealingly vigorous Mosley momentarily break through to each other.

The play's missing fifth character -- as Tom explains in his first monologue -- is father Wingfield, a telephone man who, in Williams's memorable phrase, "fell in love with long distances." Later, Amanda reiterates that the absent fellow, whose picture still glows on a wall, "fell in love with long distance." By the end of this misguided version, I'd fallen in love with long distance, too. I wanted to put a long distance between myself and it. And so should anyone who values the play. So, above all, should anyone who's never seen an unadulterated Glass Menagerie production.