09/28/2013 10:52 am ET Updated Nov 28, 2013

A Shattered 'Glass Menagerie'


One of the great things about the New York theatre is its market value, aimed at an audience so vast and eclectic that revivals of old classics are every bit as welcome as the most innovative of new experiments. Until you suffer through the dismal autopsy of a durable classic as poorly conceived and amateurishly executed as the latest Broadway resuscitation of Tennessee Williams' 1944 play The Glass Menagerie, with the erstwhile Cherry Jones giving the worst performance of her career. Then you might as well be attending a production at some community theatre in Baton Rouge or Boca. Everyone laments the paucity of originality on the New York stage these days, but this misery is so bad it gives even second-rate revival fever a bad rap.

Since the famously tortured playwright's second play -- a gauzy, poetic memory piece about the Mississippi-born writer's mordant life working in a shoe factory in St. Louis to help his bitter, fluttery fading Southern belle of a mother cope with survival after the disappearance of his father, a loser who worked for the telephone company and "fell in love with long distance"--there isn't much need to ponder the contents of the play itself. Is there anyone who pretends to know anything about the theatre who has not seen or read The Glass Menagerie? It's the production that counts, and there have been entirely too many to count. Tennessee is the narrator Tom (which was his real name) whose psychologically damaged sister Laura is a stand-in for his real sister Rose, who was forced to undergo a pre-frontal lobotomy. Both of them spend their time trying to escape from their domineering mother Amanda (fashioned after Tennessee's love-hate relationship with his mother Edwina) in different ways -- Tom smoking on the fire escape and running away nightly to movies and gay bars, already paving the way for Tennessee's future prophecy of debauchery and alcoholism, and Laura hiding from reality in her collection of miniature glass animals and old phonograph records. Circling around them, babbling in porous circles, is the indestructible poseur of a mother, a mantle of frustration, trying to make a man out of her dream son and a femme fatale of her hopelessly catatonically shy daughter. The second act centers on the evening when Tom reluctantly surrenders to his mother's incessant badgering and brings home a "gentleman caller" for Laura. The evening, like the play, ends in disaster.

Calculating, exasperating, verbose, and preposterously silly, Amanda is an unpleasant dragon of mother but also a fatal lure for magnificent actresses who cannot wait to tame her in their own image. I wasn't around when Laurette Taylor made history in the role of Amanda Wingfield in the original 1946 Broadway production, but I have seen everyone in the role from the heartbreaking Julie Harris down to the pretentious, miscast Katharine Hepburn, and not one has been so blindly, blatantly, bombastically boring. This Amanda is not just another steel magnolia; she's a marauding Mack truck with a Southern accent so phony you can't understand more than three words out of every sentence. She sounds like she's got a mouth full of wet toilet paper. When she flutters into the Act Two dinner table scene wearing an ante-bellum gown from a Civil War cotillion, the audience gasped, and so did I. Instead of an addled old trout, she had transformed herself into an escaped mental patient. Whatever else Amanda is, she is not an animated Gone With the Wind cartoon.

Hardly in the same vein as previous tender-angry Toms such as Montgomery Clift and Arthur Kennedy, Zachary Quinto (best known as Spock in Star Trek) appears to be both affected and infected by his co-star. With a droning, singsong nasality that lulls you into the arms of Morpheus, he's the most artificial Tom since John Malkovich in the 1987 flop movie directed by Paul Newman. The two best performances in the production surface in the sensitive interplay between Laura and the Gentleman Caller. Celia Keenan-Bolger has an indelible sweetness that inspires sympathy, and she doesn't overdo the crippled limp. Brian J. Smith, a real actor with the natural grace of a boxer even when he's playing awkwardness and guilt, restores the hysterics to something resembling real life. This is harder than it sounds, since the actors are sucked into the vortex of the ugliest set in any production of The Glass Menagerie I have ever seen. "Designed" is not the word I would use to describe it, but Bob Crowley, a usually learned man, is credited as "scenic and costume design". His stage is a hole of blackness. No sets, no flats, no walls, no doors -- just a ratty sofa and a series of cages rising to the ceiling which I guess are supposed to represent a St. Louis tenement fire escape.

But it's not the bleak minimalism that robs the play of so much of its poetry. It's the bogus posturing, fake drawls and insincere eye rolling right out of first-year drama school that drove me mad. So stylized and surreal that they even pantomime setting the dinner table and drinking from a coffee cup, it reeks of cornball pretense. The Gentleman Caller scene comes to life because it's the best written scene in the play, but also because director John Tiffany shows, for the first time, the value of knowing when to leave good actors alone.

He certainly doesn't know what to do with Cherry Jones. She flaps around like a spastic penguin, even when she's supposed to be showing us the pathetic and vulnerable side of Amanda, living in the past, anointing herself with daydreams of girlhood beaux, picnics and yellow jonquils. I have admired her immensely elsewhere, especially in her Tony-award winning performances in Doubt and The Heiress. That Cherry Jones, an icon of nuance, control and emotional sensibility, is nowhere to be found here.

Trying to bolster Laura's lack of confidence, the Gentleman Caller says, "I may be disappointed, but I am not discouraged." After this sorry production of The Glass Menagerie, I am both. It's downright dismaying to see an American classic ruined.