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Opening-night jitters didn't bring down the excellent debut of a new Off-Broadway theater company dedicated to bringing theater classics to new audiences.

Theater Review (NYC Off-Broadway): ‘The Glass Menagerie’ by Tennessee Williams

Opening night of the first production of Masterworks Theater Company’s inaugural season, a revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, was bound to be energized. The audience bubbled with anticipation during brief introductory speeches by director and company Artistic Director Christopher Scott and Founding Director Eric Krebs, both fizzing with excitement.

Olivia Washington and Saundra Santiago in 'The Glass Menagerie' Photo by Russ Rowland
Olivia Washington and Saundra Santiago in ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ Photo by Russ Rowland

Thankfully, the production merits the enthusiasm. Masterworks’ mission is to bring great classic works to the New York stage in high-quality productions with special low pricing for groups of young people – the necessary next generation of theatergoers. By Off-Broadway standards, the ticket prices are indeed low, and, notwithstanding a few opening-night on-stage jitters, Scott’s vision and his buoyant cast did Williams proud.

I hadn’t seen or read The Glass Menagerie in many years, but I don’t remember it being this funny. The laughs are thanks largely to Saundra Santiago’s portrayal of Amanda Wingfield, Williams’ iconic, downwardly mobile middle-aged Southern dame, and Richard Prioleau’s expansive yet measured take on her long-suffering son Tom.

Long since abandoned by a husband whose reluctance to stay on is something we quickly come to understand, Amanda tyrannizes Tom, the family breadwinner, to the point where he plans to desert her too. And she thoroughly dominates her daughter, the lame, pathologically shy Laura, who whiles away her time listening to her absent father’s old records and playing with her collection of glass animals.

The plot is straightforward: Amanda browbeats Tom into asking a co-worker, Jim, to dinner as a potential “gentleman caller” for Laura, who’s never had one. Laura’s shyness is magnified when she finds out that the guest will be a boy she had a crush on in high school. Miraculously, Jim breaks through her quivering reserve and they bond. But however many funny moments there may be over this full-length but fast-moving evening of theater, a happy ending isn’t in the cards.

In a very good cast, New York stage newcomer Olivia Washington is the real find. Her Laura is a glittering web of nerves, as thoroughly complete a performance as one could imagine.

But the success of the production is an ensemble effort. Little moments impress. Anxiously awaiting Jim’s arrival, Laura runs her fingers through the tassels of a lamp. Regaling Jim with the exaggerated tales of her own romantic youth, Amanda nervously shakes her bouquet of flowers back and forth. Earlier, at dinner with his mother and sister, Tom cringes and bristles at Amanda’s micromanagement of his very digestion.

The staging makes of Menagerie a real family drama. In some productions, just as Amanda dominates her family, she dominates the stage too, as the dramatic center of gravity. This production is more egalitarian, thanks partly to Scott’s tightly woven, imaginative staging, and partly to the sensitive and finely tuned performances by Santiago, Prioleau, Doug Harris as Jim, and Washington as a Laura I will not soon forget.

The Glass Menagerie runs through May 30 at the 47th Street Theater near Times Square. Visit the Masterworks Theater Company website for tickets, or call 212-279-4200.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases.Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires.Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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