Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Glass Menagerie-lite

In a small, barely half-filled theatre Tuesday night, I experienced a tiny theatrical miracle, the New York premiere of a lighthearted romantic comedy by one of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century, or any century as far as I’m concerned.

It’s a story of a domineering southern mother, her painfully shy daughter, her son who works in a factory but dreams of becoming a writer, and the coworker he brings home to dinner, having been nagged by his mother, to meet his sister. Sounds familiar, right? Except for the idea that the thwarted worlds of Amanda, Laura and Tom Wingfield would ever be seen as lighthearted, romantic or comedic.

The Pretty Trap, which opened last night at the Acorn Theatre, is Williams' improbable one-act precursor to The Glass Menagerie. Starring Katharine Houghton as Amanda (left, standing), Nisi Sturgis as Laura, Robert Eli as Tom and Loren Dunn as Jim Delaney, the Gentleman Caller (standing), and directed by Antony Marsellis, the Cause Celebrè production is a pleasant, under-an-hour summer night’s diversion. But more important, it’s a fascinating look into the creative process of a playwright and one of his most exquisite works.

While some funny moments are peppered throughout, mostly relating to the awkwardness of Jimmy’s presence and Amanda’s pushiness, it’s hard to see this play as a comedy because the ghosts of the more well-known characters haunt our minds.

At the time, Williams described The Pretty Trap (which is what Amanda says every young woman should be) as the second act of a longer work to come. I don’t know what could have happened for him to follow such a dramatically different path for Menagerie and, given the two plays I’d certainly choose the later work, but it is nice to see Laura --and the unicorn -- have a happy ending for a change.

It’s also a relief to have an Amanda who isn’t as cruel toward her children. Although she doesn’t utter the famous “the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it” warning, she does still want the best for her children’s future, as she sees it. But here she prods more than belittles.

Another character difference is that this Laura doesn’t have a limp and is better at standing up to her mother.

Houghton seems to enjoy portraying this Amanda-lite. She has played Laura, but says she never had any desire to take on the more formidable matriarch, a role which her aunt, Katharine Hepburn, assumed and won an Emmy nomination for in a 1973 TV adaptation. Although she has numerous stage and film credits and is a produced playwright, Houghton probably will always be best known as the sunny young daughter who brings home a black fiancĂ© (Sidney Poitier) to her liberal parents (Hepburn and Spencer Tracy) in the controversial 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

The other cast members also seem comfortable in their roles. Ray Klausen has created a shabbily comfy flat in St. Louis, absent the grim alley and fire escape that set the tone in Menagerie. Bernie Dove’s lighting effectively shifts the moods.

Gone too is the expressionism that lends Menagerie its “dream play” quality. The Pretty Trap is a fast-paced, straightforward naturalist play, which runs through Aug. 21 and is well worth journeying over the Theater Row to see.

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