Star-Crossed (and –Blessed) Revivals: Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams

Broadway’s new 'Romeo and Juliet' hardly seems worth the trouble, but 'The Glass Menagerie' soars

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Michael J. Lutch

I was already stifling a yawn as I headed to the theater for the first two shows of Broadway’s fall season. I’ve complained before about the glut of revivals, and here, to start the “new” season, come two of the most familiar warhorses in the repertory. Only one of them perked me up.

Though its story is known by practically every junior-high student in the country, Romeo and Juliet almost qualifies as a neglected classic on Broadway. It was produced with regularity back in the 1920s, 30s and ‘40s, showcasing stars like Maurice Evans, Ethel Barrymore, Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh (a young Orson Welles even played Tybalt in a 1934 production starring Basil Rathbone and Katharine Cornell). But it has been 26 years since its last Broadway appearance; Macbeth, by comparison, has been staged four times in the interim, with fifth set for this fall.

Director David Leveaux’s new version is just okay. After all the hip updating by  directors like Baz Luhrmann, it’s no longer a surprise to find the play done in modern dress, or to see Romeo make his first appearance on a motorcycle. And the racial casting — the Montagues are white, the Capulets black — is pretty much a non-event these days; we’ve all seen West Side Story. Leveaux’s other attempts to freshen the play mostly amount to fairly crude stage effects: the chief prop is a giant bell suspended from the rafters, whose ringing jolts the audience out of its seats more than once.

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Orlando Bloom, the pretty-boy co-star of the Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean films, is a perfectly good Romeo: attractive, athletic and able to speak the Shakespeare’s verse well, if not very powerfully. As Juliet, however, Condola Rashad seems overmatched. She recycles the same wide-eyed innocence she gave to her role in last season’s A Trip to Bountiful, and her reactions often come a split-second too soon — too programmed to be authentic.  Christian Camargo has some punk energy as Mercutio, and stage vet Jane Houdyshell makes an amusing nurse. But the love story at the center is largely passionless, making the revival seem largely pointless.

Next to Shakespeare, no playwright gets more love on Broadway than Tennessee Williams. Rare is the season when one of his big three — A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or The Glass Menagerie — isn’t brought back so some major female star can show off her Southern accent. This season the lottery winners are The Glass Menagerie and Cherry Jones, the two-time Tony Award winner, who plays Amanda Wingfield, the overbearing mother in Williams’ autobiographical first Broadway success.

In a production that drew raves last season at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., director John Tiffany (Once) has made a moody “memory play” even moodier and more evocative of memory.  On a dimly lit stage, dominated by a fire escape that ascends to the heavens, characters literally emerge from the scenery as they are introduced by Tom Wingfield, the narrator who guides us through the last days of his claustrophobic home life, before escaping and growing up to be Tennessee Williams.

Jones is a formidable Amanda, the mother who refuses to recognize the reality of her painfully shy daughter’s physical disability and psychic fragility. She’s less flighty and foolish than Amanda is sometimes played, a dominating figure despite her disconnection. Zachary Quinto, best known for playing Spock in the Star Trek films and the stock trader at the center of the Wall Street thriller Margin Call, is effective as Tom, but goes a little large, his memories often sounding more bitter than wistful.

From my seat, the play really soars in the second act, when two quieter, and less-celebrated actors, take over. Celia Keenan-Bolger (a Tony nominee last season for Peter and the Starcatcher) plays Laura with extraordinary poignance and composure. Like her character, she seems overshadowed by the showier actors onstage; she sucks up her mother’s abuse with quiet dignity, and lets her inner poetry emerge naturally, without strain or sentimentality. As the Gentleman Caller, Brian J. Smith at first seems too tentative, too “realistic,” for a character that is something of a caricature of a Dale Carnegie go-getter. Yet his patient drawing out of Laura, her gradual emergence from her shell, and the ultimate shattering of her brief moment in the sun, are as believably and beautifully played as I’ve ever seen them.

It’s a heartbreaking evening — and a heartening reward for anyone who wonders whether revivals can, once in a while at least, be worth the trouble.