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Theatre Review (LA): The Glass Menagerie at the Mark Taper Forum

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When I first heard that the Taper was going to do The Glass Menagerie as part of its season, and specifically an imported production via the Long Wharf in New Haven and the Roundabout in New York, I shook my head in disbelief. Why is the Taper acting like just another repertory theatre, let alone one than brings in other productions (is it to save money)? The Taper is our premiere theatre and should be doing new plays or at least new concepts. Well, I was wrong to doubt the motives of Artistic Director Michael Ritchie. First, this is a new interpretation or at least a reimagining of this great play, done so many times and in so many places. Second, I think I love the idea of bringing extraordinary work, new or old, to the Taper for LA to see. There is a reason this production is being transported here. Simply put, it is revolutionary in its concept and outstanding in its delivery. Even it had had been just another production of the play, the cast, headed by Judith Ivey, is excellent.

What makes this production different is that the attention is shifted onto Tom (Patch Darragh). A production at the Colony Theatre directed by Jessica Zublansky had done that, but without turning the play on its head. Here, director Gordon Edelstein has set the play in a seedy hotel room with Tom at his typewriter trying to hammer out the play. He is in obvious pain and drunk besides. The play unfolds as he is writing it there in the hotel room, the way characters come to life for a writer while he grapples with their creation. We see Tom hesitate, scribble, cross out, and give birth to this masterpiece at some personal cost. The story, especially Amanda, almost does him in and makes it seem that somehow the mother may have been right despite her meddlings. Tom here is an oaf, an obvious drunk, and blatantly homosexual. Edelstein borrows what we know of Williams’ life to infuse pathos into the character, risking making him almost if not downright unlikeable. Patch Darragh, giving a Vincent D’Onofrio-like performance, handles all this brilliantly. He lurches about the set and is quite unpredictable. Thrilling.

Judith Ivey is perhaps the best Amanda I have seen since I saw Carrie Nye do snippets of scenes back in the 70’s. She is bold, direct, motherly, overbearing, insufferable, and funny. You almost like this Amanda, and see why Tom is having such a hard time of it. Keira Keeley makes an intelligent Laura who knows Tom’s secret life “at the movies.” She also shows some of Amanda’s sense of humor, and we come to believe that she and the Gentleman Caller (a rock-solid Ben McKenzie) could be a match. McKenzie’s Jim O’Connor is full of insecurities that match hers.

Their scene is done straight and with Tom offstage (he is in every other scene). This is a bit inconsistent with the concept but McKenzie and Keeley were lovely and I was almost glad Tom was gone. Here Tom would have been a distraction given his erratic presence. I have one major caveat with the production and that is that the set is placed at such a low level that much of the audience, at least were I was sitting, had to strain to see the scene on the floor between Laura and Jim. Also the lighting was too dark for my taste, even though Tom has said something about the low lights at the beginning. This will not be everyone’s Menagerie but I really loved it.

The Glass Menagerie plays at the Taper until Oct. 17th. Go see it and judge for yourself.

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