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A Minimalist 'Menagerie' That Packs Plenty Of Power

Sep 28, 2013
Originally published on September 28, 2013 11:16 am

The seventh Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' great American play The Glass Menagerie has just opened at the Booth Theatre in New York City for a 17-week run.

John Tiffany, who previously staged the Tony-winning smash Once and the stirringly kinetic Iraq War drama Black Watch, directed the new production, whose cast includes the formidable actress Cherry Jones as the suffocating matriarch Amanda, plus film, TV and stage star Zachary Quinto as her son Tom and Celia Keenan-Bolger, a Tony nominee for Peter and the Starcatcher, as her physically disabled and emotionally damaged daughter, Laura.

The same cast had a tryout run last spring at the American Repertory Theatre in Boston, where they earned rave reviews. Barbara Chai of The Wall Street Journal has already seen the show — and toured the set, a minimalist rendering of a St. Louis apartment living room, circa 1937. Chai tells NPR's Scott Simon that it's pretty squarely in the spirit of what Williams would've wanted to see.


Interview Highlights

On what makes this production stand out

Many directors have opted for a naturalistic set — in other words, apartments with ceilings and walls, full floors. But John Tiffany, I think, really [believes in] Tennessee Williams' original idea of "plastic theater," in which the truth can be represented by changing forms and with expression, and not necessarily a photographic likeness.

And so in John Tiffany's set, it's stripped down bare. It's minimalist. There are three hexagonal wooden platforms that represent the rooms in this apartment. And to give the idea of being in the past, he has the platforms literally floating on black liquid, so that you get the idea that this family is marooned in the past.

I think it only adds to the lines. Certainly at the beginning we have Tom's introduction where he says, "I'm the opposite of a stage magician providing truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." And then it's as if he's tripping backward, and he takes us into his memory. And as he walks through the hexagonal rooms, he's actually lit a different color. He's lit bluish-white, as if he's a ghost, whereas Amanda and Laura are lit in [candlelight], sort of evocative of memories.

On Cherry Jones, playing the matriarch Amanda

She seems perfect. ... John Tiffany had lunch with Cherry when they were at the ART, the American Repertory Theater, in Cambridge. Cherry Jones, who's from Tennessee, had just returned from cleaning her parents attic, and she was, you know, in the accent. And as we know, Amanda Wingfield in the play is a faded Southern belle. And so John had the idea immediately, "Well, why don't we do The Glass Menagerie and cast Cherry as Amanda." And from there he cast Zachary Quinto and Celia Keenan-Bolger.

On the interpretation of Tom, the play's narrator, as gay

It isn't ever explicitly described in the play. He just says, "I go out late at night, and I'm at the movies." And Amanda, his mother, of course, when she's on his back and saying, "Why are you going out every night? Where are you going? Why do you come stumbling home at 2 a.m. with drink on your breath?" — there's the implication that she knows he's up to something that she doesn't consider clean and proper.

When I spoke with the director John Tiffany, who is himself openly gay, he said that he's certain, in that part of the play, that she's referring to his sexuality.

On how Menagerie has held up over the years

It's like that Emily Dickinson quote, "Tell the truth, but tell it slant." I think that is originally what Tennessee Williams was getting at with the idea of plastic theater — that it does not have to be a literal expression of the truth. You can come at it from an angle.

What's beautiful here is that John Tiffany, I think, takes that literally and created this abstract set with Bob Crowley. ... John is English, and Bob Crowley, the set designer, is Irish. And John said to me, "You know, doing Tennessee Williams in America is like an American stage director doing Shakespeare in the U.K."

And this season ... we have Pinter, we have Beckett, there are revivals of Shakespeare — but Tennessee Williams is the only American playwright being revived on Broadway in the fall.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. "The Glass Menagerie" is back on Broadway. The sixth Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' great American play opened Thursday at the Booth Theater for a limited 17-week run. John Tiffany directs the production. It stars Cherry Jones as Amanda, Zachary Quinto as Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura, and Brian Smith as the Gentleman Caller. The cast had a tryout run in Boston last spring, and earned rave reviews. Barbara Chai of the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog saw the play, toured the set, spoke with a few people in the production. She explains how John Tiffany makes this new production stand out from the rest.

BARBARA CHAI: Well, what's interesting is in previous productions, many directors have opted for a naturalistic set. In other words, apartments with ceilings and walls, full floors. But John Tiffany, I think, really embodies Tennessee Williams's original idea of classic theater in which the truth can be represented by changing forms and with expression and not necessarily a photographic likeness. And so in John Tiffany's set, it's stripped down bare, it's minimalist and there are three hexagonal wooden platforms that represent the rooms in this apartment. And to give the idea of being in the past, he has the platforms literally floating on black liquid so that you get the idea that this family is marooned in the past.

SIMON: This doesn't detract from those very well-known lines at this point?

CHAI: I think it only adds to the lines. Certainly in the beginning, we have Tom's introduction where he says: I'm the opposite of a stage magician providing truth in a pleasant disguise of illusion. And then it's as if he's tripping backward and he takes us into his memory in the past. And as he walks into the hexagonal rooms, he's actually lit a different color. He's lit bluish-white as if he's a ghost, whereas Amanda and Laura are lit in candlelit, sort of evocative of memories.

SIMON: Tell me about Zachary Quinto as Tom. For years, Tom was played as Tom. And then over the years it's been permissible, maybe based less on the lines than on Tennessee Williams' own biography, to play Tom with, I think, increasingly opening the door to the idea that Tom might have been a closeted gay. How do they handle that in this production?

CHAI: It's a great question because it isn't ever explicitly described in the play. He just says, I go out late at night, and I'm at the movies. And Amanda, his mother, of course, when she's on his back and saying why are you going out every night? Where are you going? Why do you come stumbling home at 2 A.M. with drink on your breath? There's the implication that she knows he's up to something that she doesn't consider clean and proper. And when I spoke with the director John Tiffany, who is himself openly gay, he said that he's certain, in that part of the play, that she's referring to his sexuality. And so it's interesting because in the cast, Zachary Quinto just came out a couple of years ago. For many years, though, when he was the star of "Heroes," it was never confirmed. But a couple of years ago, said on the record that there were a number of teenage suicides by young people who were grappling and struggling with their own identity and with bullying at school and he wanted to come out and say I'm a gay male and I'm an actor and I'm still the same person as I was before I made this announcement.

SIMON: This play stands up well over the years?

CHAI: Absolutely. And again, with this fresh production, I think - it's like that Emily Dickinson quote: Tell the truth, but tell it slant." I think that is originally what Tennessee Williams was getting at with the idea of plastic theater; that it does not have to be a literal expression of the truth. You can come at it from an angle. And what's beautiful here is that John Tiffany, I think, takes that literally and created this abstract set with Bob Crowley. And what's also interesting to me, Scott, is that John is English, and Bob Crowley, the set designer, is Irish. And John said to me, you know, doing Tennessee Williams in America is like an American stage director doing Shakespeare in the UK. And this season there we have Pinter, we have Beckett, there are revivals of Shakespeare - but Tennessee Williams is the only American playwright being revived on Broadway in the fall.

SIMON: With all due regard to Beckett and Shakespeare and the other fine playwrights you mentioned, I'd put Tennessee Williams up against all seven or eight of them.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAI: I would too. I would too.

SIMON: Barbara Chai of the Wall Street Journal. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHAI: Thank you for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.