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The Family Ties That Bind: ‘The Glass Menagerie’

March 10th, 2017 Comments off
Sally Field and Joe Mantello in 'The Glass Menagerie' (Photo: Julieta Cervantes via The Broadway Blog.)

Sally Field and Joe Mantello in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ (Photo: Julieta Cervantes via The Broadway Blog.)

I have no doubt that Sam Gold’s stark, contemporary interpretation of Tennessee Williams’ masterwork, The Glass Menagerie, will polarize audiences and critics alike. The current Broadway revival, which opened last night at the Belasco Theatre, is a muscular, often anachronistic work. “The play is memory,” says the son, Tom (Joe Mantello), “Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” If you believe those words at face value, as I did, you will discover a production that bristles with familial uncomfortability. That pushes your boundaries beyond the suspension of disbelief. And that, ultimately, breaks your heart as the ties that bind unravel before your eyes.

Set in an alley in St. Louis, “Now and in the Past,” The Glass Menagerie reveals the layered dysfunction in the Wingfield household, helmed by matriarch Amanda (Sally Field) and her two children, Tom (Joe Mantello) and Laura (Madison Ferris). A gentleman caller, Jim O’Connor (Finn Wittrock) later appears, but it is the unseen fifth character of the father, “a telephone man who fell in love with long distances,” who looms over the proceedings like an emotional grim reaper.

Madison Ferris, Sally Field, and Joe Mantello in 'The Glass Menagerie.' (Photo: Julieta Cervantes via The Broadway Blog.)

Madison Ferris, Sally Field, and Joe Mantello in ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ (Photo: Julieta Cervantes via The Broadway Blog.)

Williams’ construct is quite simple, really. During the day, Tom is trapped in a warehouse job at Continental Shoemakers while his wanderlust slowly simmers away. At home, his recluse sister plays with her glass menagerie as his mother tries to pine and manipulate her way toward an idealistic vision for a charmed life for herself and her two wayward adult children. When Tom invites his colleague, Jim, home for dinner, Amanda sets a social entrapment in the hopes that the young man will find Laura suitable for the taking. Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans…

As narrator and son, Mantello is wiry, perhaps more middle-aged neurotic New Yorker than down-on-his-luck warehouse worker. Putting “type” aside, it makes no difference. Mantello bites into Williams’ language with a ferocity that some might remember from his Tony award-nominated performance in Angels in America. Mantello has no fear of unhinging Tom’s squelched life. And it helps that he has a terrific sparring partner in Sally Field.

Last seen on Broadway in Edward Albee’s 2002 The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, most of Field’s body of the work has been on the screen, both big and small. The two-time Academy Award winner and three-time Emmy Award winning actress as spanned half a century. Once again, the actress delivers a watershed moment, the culmination of more of a decade of yearning to return to the role, which she played at a Tennessee Williams Festival at the Kennedy Center in 2004. Gold guides her through a fluid vacillation between aging southern belle and contemporary matriarch.

Finn Wittrock and Madison Ferris in 'The Glass Menagerie.' (Photo: Julieta Cervantes via The Broadway Blog.)

Finn Wittrock and Madison Ferris in ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ (Photo: Julieta Cervantes via The Broadway Blog.)

Making her Broadway debut, Ferris is tasked with perhaps the play’s most challenging role. Laura, often portrayed as waif-like with a non-discriminant limp or another physical challenge, is lost in the world of her menagerie. Drifting in and out of life’s social demands, it is easy to shroud her as a victim. But Ferris, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in her teens but hasn’t let that stop her from pursuing a theater degree from Muhlenberg College and moving to New York City, often as difficult to navigate as Williams’ masterwork. This conflict of strength and vulnerability sheds new light on Laura, who seems almost flippant at her mother’s eccentric pursuit of a gentleman caller. But Ferris tends to, at times, vacantly drift, nearly consumed by Mantello and Field’s master class.

But when Wittrock arrives as her gentleman caller, Ferris lights up. And who wouldn’t? He embodies an easy, All-American façade, but don’t be fooled by his good looks. Wittrock mines Jim for all he’s worth, clutching to a gem given by the playwright, who pegs Jim as a man in pursuit of upward mobility. Jim is taking a night course in public speaking, and Wittrock joyfully nudges this character detail to the forefront with a bellowing voice.

Stripped down to its bare walls, scenic designer Andrew Lieberman and lighting designer Adam Silverman create a barren theatrical landscape at the Belasco. But there is plenty to feast on in this eighth Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie.

The Glass Menagerie
Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street, NYC
Through July 2

3 to See: March

March 7th, 2017 Comments off

Spring is around the corner and the means a whole new crop of Broadway shows bursting on the scene. Here are our three picks of the month:

Sally Field and Joe Mantello in 'The Glass Menagerie' (Photo: Julieta Cervantes via The Broadway Blog.)

Sally Field and Joe Mantello in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ (Photo: Julieta Cervantes via The Broadway Blog.)

The Glass Menagerie
It’s Tennessee Williams like you’ve never seen it before. Sam Gold directs an all-star cast that includes Academy Award winner Sally Field, Tony Award Joe Mantello, Finn Wittrock and Madison Ferris in her Broadway debut. Stripped down to its electrifying core, don’t expect a flashy set typical of the Great White Way. Instead, Gold puts the Pulitzer Prize-winning play front and center, where it belongs. Following a few days in the lives of the dysfunctional Wingfield family, the memory play examines the family ties that bind and the cost to break free.

The Glass Menagerie
Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street, NYC
Opening night: March 8

The cast of 'Come From Away' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Come From Away’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Come From Away
A sleeper hit that’s been inching its way to Broadway after record-breaking engagements in La Jolla, Seattle, Washington D.C. and Toronto, this new musical is inspired by harrowing source material. On September 11, 2001, 38 planes with 6,579 passengers were stranded in a remote town in Newfoundland. The locals opened their hearts and homes, hosting this international community of strangers—spurring unexpected camaraderie in extraordinary circumstances. Christopher Ashley (Memphis) directs.

Come From Away
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th Street, NYC
Opening night: March 12

Eva Noblezada in the London production of 'Miss Saigon.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Eva Noblezada in the London production of ‘Miss Saigon.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Miss Saigon
The 90s mega-musical returns with the revival of Miss Saigon, Cameron Mackintosh’s new production of Boublil and Schönberg’s legendary musical. Featuring its acclaimed stars from the London production, Jon Jon Briones, Eva Noblezada, Alistair Brammer, and Rachelle Ann Go, Miss Saigon promises to wallop audiences once again with sweeping melodies and scenic spectacle (Production Design by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley; Design Concept by Adrian Vaux.)

In the last days of the Vietnam War, 17-year-old Kim is forced to work in a Saigon bar run by a notorious character known as the Engineer. There she meets and falls in love with an American G.I. named Chris, but they are torn apart by the fall of Saigon. For three years Kim goes on an epic journey of survival to find her way back to Chris, who has no idea he’s fathered a son. Bring tissues!

Miss Saigon
Broadway Theatre
1681 Broadway
Opening night: March 23

Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo

 

 

 

Review: ‘An Act of God’ Featuring Jim Parsons

June 5th, 2015 Comments off

Review by Samuel L. Leiter

AAOG Logo ArtworkEven if, like me, you’re not a particular fan of Jim Parsons, the TV star with the quirky voice, boyish face, and looming forehead, you’re likely to have a divine revelation when you see him on Broadway playing the titular hero in David Javerbaum’s play, An Act of God, based on the book written by the Lord and transcribed by the multi-Emmy-winning Javerbaum. An Act of God may not be as outrageously hilarious as some of the early reviews suggested, but it’s funny enough for most of its 90 intermissionless minutes to give your rictus muscles a thorough workout.

Although largely a one-man performance, it’s superbly augmented by the adorable presence of the white-suited, white-winged Christopher Fitzgerald as the Archangel Michael and Tim Kazurinsky as the Archangel Gabriel (“on Bible”), both perfectly cast as God’s “wingmen.” Parsons sits at center in front of designer Scott Pask’s elegantly simple background of concentric rings with a large circular opening (gorgeously lit by Huge Vanstone), telling us everything we wanted to know about God but were afraid to ask.

Tim Kazurinsky, Jim Parsons, and Christopher Fitzgerald in 'Act of God' (photo: Jeremy Daniel Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

Tim Kazurinsky, Jim Parsons, and Christopher Fitzgerald in ‘Act of God’ (photo: Jeremy Daniel Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

Dressed in a flowing white robe over a plaid shirt, black jeans, and red sneakers (the costumes are by David Zinn), God debunks all the familiar preconceptions people hold about him and the Bible. Going meta he informs us he’s being played by “beloved television star Jim Parsons” the irony of whose starring on TV’s The Big Bang Theory he couldn’t resist; chastises latecomers (“You’re lucky I’m God and not Patti LuPone”) and someone whose cellphone goes off; tosses off zingers accompanied by angelic rimshots; gives you the inside story on biblical topics, like the Creation, Noah’s ark, Abraham and Isaac, and Job (“the funniest book in the Bible”); has Michael gather questions from “the expensive part of the audience”; and even takes a selfie with his angel buddies.

Michael himself so pesters his master with probing questions that he gets a shot of divine wrath (God later acknowledges his “wrath management issues”). But, sometimes, when God contemplates some of the horrific things he’s done, he explains himself in a way that, while bringing down the house, shows how imperfect he really is.

Jim Parsons in 'An Act of God' (photo: Jeremy Daniel Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

Jim Parsons in ‘An Act of God’ (photo: Jeremy Daniel Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

Using a replica of the Ten Commandments (God says it was taken from a courthouse in Tulsa after being declared unconstitutional), he replaces them with a set of new ones; he’s grown weary of the old ones, “the same way Don McLean has grown weary of ‘American Pie.’” After adding, “Today, the Mosaic dies,” he declares that he’s decided to give his “new commandments directly to the Jewish people. That’s why I’m here on Broadway.” The script consistently keeps up this kind of schmoozing, some of it groan-worthy but nonetheless risible, and the audience eats it up.

Sensitive issues creep in but are handled holy tongue in holy cheek. God, noting that Gabriel dictated the Quran to Muhammed, declares that was “the beginning of Islam, and at the request of the producers, that is the last you’ll be hearing of Islam tonight.” Sex, of course, straight and gay, is fodder for big laughs. Did you know that before God created Eve, he created Steve as Adam’s helpmeet (because Adam “masturbated incessantly”)? If you believe in evolution, you may be surprised to learn how the fossils and dinosaurs got there. When God insists that people stop killing in his name because “I can kill all by myself,” he begins ticking off the deaths occurring at that moment, reassuring the audience that it’s safe, “at least until 3:36 this morning.”

Very little is sacred in this show—certainly not Caitlyn Jenner, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, or Donald Trump—with its references to incest, the separation of God and state, abortion, guns, God’s blessing of America, God’s relationship to victories and losses in sports and elsewhere, taking the Lord’s name in vain, prayer, Jesus (“a cannibal vampire”), and even, God help us, the Holocaust. In a scene Mel Brooks might have conceived, God recounts the time he debated for two weeks whether the Jews should practice circumcision or breast augmentation for 18-year-old girls.

An Act of God, well directed by Joe Mantello, has a simple enough concept, but, this being Broadway, it includes some very high-tech special effects, and even an original soft-rock number (by Adam Schlesinger) to close the show. God does a lot of smiting in this show; I was smitten.

An Act of God
Studio 54
254 West 54th Street
Through August 2

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

Review: “Casa Valentina,” Harvey Fierstein’s Heartbreaking House of Cards

April 23rd, 2014 Comments off

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler reviews the latest work by Harvey Fierstein.

Patrick Page in Casa Valentina (photo: Matthew Murphy) via The Broadway Blog.

Patrick Page in Casa Valentina (photo: Matthew Murphy) via The Broadway Blog.

“When you make the two one… and when you make the MALE AND THE
FEMALE INTO A SINGLE ONE—then shall you enter the Kingdom.”
– The gospel of Thomas, Transvestia Magazine

Casa Valentina, a new play by Tony-winner Harvey Fierstein that opened tonight on Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is not perfect. But as the audience learns by going down the rabbit hole with a little-known group of men ensconced in a bungalow colony in the Catskills circa 1962, life is not perfect. It does not always look the way we want it to. And those who have the fortitude (some may call it courage while others may view it as cowardly) can discover an alternate life… a cryptic duality that exists in fantasy but is realized through a crinoline skirt or a padded bra. This is the world of The Chevalier d’Eon—a secluded enclave operated by husband and wife proprietors George, otherwise known as Valentina (Patrick Page), and Rita (Mare Winningham).

Director Joe Mantello deftly maneuvers Fierstein’s complex script that is based upon the real-life colony that catered to self-proclaimed heterosexual men whose deepest desires were to dress and act as women. These were not the kind of men who would later march in the streets during Stonewall or take over the Castro. They were white-collar professionals with families who yearned for a discreet and safe environment to inhabit their alter egos.

Nick Westrate, John Cullum and Gabriel Ebert in "Casa Valentina" (photo: Matthew Murphy) via The Broadway Blog.

Nick Westrate, John Cullum and Gabriel Ebert in “Casa Valentina” (photo: Matthew Murphy) via The Broadway Blog.

The annual gathering includes a handful of new and returning guests, including (among others) a hauntingly fragile and troubled Jonathan/Miranda (Gabriel Ebert), who ventures to the retreat for his first public outing as a woman; Bessie (Tom McGowan), the bawdy broad of the group; Terry (John Collum), a flighty septuagenarian who can still pull off eveningwear; and the evening’s plot driver, Charlotte (a deliciously spot-on ‘60s-inspired performance by Reed Birney), who arrives with the intent to unite the group into an official organization to help gain acceptance in open society.

Casa Valentina raises plucked eyebrows in its nuanced exploration of gender identity and its relationship—or lack thereof—to homosexuality. Even within the LGBT community, it has taken decades for transgender men and women to gain recognition. Among the characters, there are varying degrees of identification. Most firmly embrace their heterosexuality, their wives and their manly place in society, yet this undeniable need to express their inherent womanhood pulses through their veins. “Personally I luxuriate in the conceit of having dual personalities,” says Bessie. “I am, I dare say, my own perfect spouse. And we are the perfect couple. I’m sorry his wife is jealous, but she has every right to be.”

Reed Birney in "Casa Valentina" (photo: Matthew Murphy) via The Broadway Blog.

Reed Birney in “Casa Valentina” (photo: Matthew Murphy) via The Broadway Blog.

But this perfect world starts to unhinge as Charlotte attempts to stronghold the group into signing a membership registration that proclaims the sorority of cross-dresses but denounces homosexuality. One isn’t sure if she’s got a bit of pre-Roy Cohn in her but there’s definitely something awry as she vehemently abhors any thought of gay relations among her chosen community. Such is the conflict at Casa Valentina as Charlotte’s waxings begin to unhinge the group.

Fierstein beautifully portrays the humanity in each of his characters. It is what has defined his body of work from Torch Song Trilogy to last year’s Tony Award-winning Kinky Boots. The script occasionally feels dramaturgical and weighty with rhetoric, but the hot summer night as visualized by Scott Pask (scenic design), Justin Townsend (lighting design), Rita Ryack (costumes) and Jason P. Hayes (hair, wig and makeup), firmly ground the language in a sense of time and place.

Joe Mantello, whose own duality has placed him both onstage as a Tony-nominated actor and Tony-winning director, for the most part extracts captivating performances from the veteran ensemble. Patrick Page as George/Valentina pours a complex cocktail of hyper-masculinity, odd naivety, and a downright sexuality. Larry Pine as The Judge/Amy, who finds herself at the epicenter of the sorority’s ethical debate, is equally as engaging and complex. In fact, all of the men and their female counterparts have their moments in the spotlight. Unfortunately Winningham’s performance falls short. Slighty dull and with little motivation, she meanders through the play as a vehicle for the more colorfully portrayed characters surrounding her.

In a Broadway season that has brought us Terrene McNally’s Mothers and Sons and an acclaimed revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina may be perhaps the bravest of the bunch. Rita asks George in the play’s final moments, “In your perfect world, if you could have anything, what would it be?” It is a question many of us are afraid to ask. And even more afraid to answer.

Casa Valentina
Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street

The cast of "Casa Valentina." (photo: Henry Leutwyler)

The cast of “Casa Valentina.” (photo: Henry Leutwyler)

Editor Matthew Wexler’s work has appeared in Hamptons, Gotham, Hemispheres, Passport, Private Islands, among others. Read more at roodeloo.com.