Observations Through a Glass Darkly: Thoughts on The Glass Menagerie – October 10, 2013

The relationship between a parent and their adult children is almost always fraught with heightened expectation, aggravated restlessness, and a healthy dose of illuminating confrontation, and is most combustible when an unexpected catalyst enters the fray, forever changing the familial dynamic. Of course, the memories of such events are often distorted by the emotions associated with them, skewing how they might have actually unfolded. Such themes are at the heart of The Glass Menagerie, written by Tennessee Williams, currently playing at the Booth Theater though February 23, 2014. I obtained my ticket via the TDF Ticket Raffle at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Flea Market & Auction, intrigued by the play’s premise. I will admit that I’ve never been one to actively see classic plays, considering my introduction to live theater was through musicals, not to mention the fact that ticket prices have steadily increased over the years – I think it had something to do with the moments of quiet during scenes, and the lack of music that is omnipresent in musicals. Over the years though I have broadened my theatrical endeavors to include plays, though often times the plays I have seen have had some instrumental underscoring within (or, in the case of Peter and the Starcatcher, a few songs included within the show). It does seem (at least to me) the norm to have some kind of music within plays, whether incorporated within the framework of the play, or melodic underscoring. But then again, spoken dialogue has a kind of rhythm to it – bursts of anger or frustration are akin to a musical crescendo, a high (sustained) note belted out at the climax of a scene.

The Glass Menagerie marquee

But I digress (again).

The framework of plot centers around the memories of Tom Wingfield, a young man living with and supporting his mother Amanda and older sister Laura, and who also serves (at the start of the play) as the narrator relating the actions within the play as drawn from his memories. As the primary breadwinner of the family (as his father abandoned them years ago), he chafes at the restrictions and responsibilities thrust upon him and yearns to find his own identity. His mother Amanda waxes lyrical of her Southern upbringing and her memories of her youth, while concurrently frets over the future of her children, especially for Laura, a painfully shy girl with health issues, whose sole interest is in glass figurines she keeps (her ‘glass menagerie’). Wishing her daughter have the comforts she had, Amanda prods Tom to find a ‘gentleman caller’ for her sister to ensure her future, as she sees Laura’s life become stagnant; a task Tom does fulfill when he brings Jim, a work colleague, home one evening. Relationships are created, tested and unraveled by the time the evening comes to a close, with the family ties broken beyond repair. The character archetypes of overbearing mother, restless son and introverted daughter are recognizable ones, and ones to which I can personally relate, and the events in the play were familiar to themes in my own life. Resistance and rebellion are also thematic with the family dynamic, with dire results.

The Glass Menagerie cast list

The play was breathtaking to watch, the interactions between the three family members and their subsequent interactions with Jim bringing out different aspects of the Wingfield family. The set design echoed the framework of it being formed via memory, with the stage on which the characters interact and converse seeming to float among darkness (there are pools of water that surround the hexagonal set and a distinct dark divide between the actors on the stage and the audience. From the vantage point in the mezzanine, the reflections upon the dark water, whether it be the characters on stage or the frequent yet fleeting images of illuminated stars, coupled with the sparing use of set pieces, added to the tension on stage – there seemed to be a literal and physical boundary that sets apart those within the Wingfield family from those without. As mentioned earlier, there was a bit of musical underscoring at times during the play, which accentuated the scenes (as stated at the onset of the play by Tom as the Narrator: “In memory everything seems to happen to music.” The quartet of actors was astounding to watch: Zachary Quinto, in his Broadway debut, was mesmerizing as Tom, exuding the brooding restlessness of a young man saddled with responsibilities he didn’t ask for, balanced with the zeal to find a better life (or at least a life different from what his mother wants). Cherry Jones was amazing as Amanda, a mother who truly wants the best for her children, though has an imperious way of showing her love and concern, leading to a kind of obliviousness of how her words and actions have an adverse affect her children’s psyche. Celia Keenan-Bolger was fantastic as Laura, the introverted daughter who lived contentedly in her own world, displaying intense fragility to outside stimuli, yet wandering through an increasingly (in her mother’s eyes) stagnant life; the moment she takes a (tiny) step outside her own world in her (eventual) interaction with Jim (the ‘gentleman caller’, as her mother refers to him) was most revealing, as if she is slowly emerging from a cocoon to become (if only for a short period of time) a butterfly with wings to lift her from her isolation. Brian J. Smith is also fantastic as ‘the Gentleman Caller’ Jim, a genial guy who has his own set of expectations and disappointments to contend with, and unwittingly becomes the catalyst that forever changes the Wingfield family, though perhaps for the better, despite the chaos his presences ultimately brings.

The stage door experience was a good one – the crowd wasn’t as large as I had expected, as Zachary Quinto is probably most famous for being in the latest reboot of the Star Trek series (though a good percentage of people waiting at the stage door were women). In the end, only Brian J. Smith and Celia Keenan-Bolger emerged from the stage door, and happily signed playbills and posed for photos with those waiting at the stage door.

Glass Menagerie Cast

The Glass Menagerie is considered to be one of the great American plays, and for good reason – it’s rare that I attend a play that leaves such an impression that takes days to shake off – the character types such as Tom, Amanda and Laura Wingfield exist in every family, which insure the play’s eternal relevance.

Glass Menagerie signed playbill

First Impressions: Thoughts on First Date – October 3, 2013

Going on a blind date can be a frightening endeavor, fraught with doubts, misconceptions and the dread that the evening will turn out to be a disastrous waste of time. The same can be said about going to see a musical “blind”, that is, walking into a theater without knowing too much about the story or the score. Given the extravagant cost of theater tickets nowadays, I rarely go see a new musical (or play for that matter) without knowing at least something about the plot or (in the case of musicals) listening to the cast recording (if one exists). Of course, that “rule” is (somewhat) waived when said new musical is among the tickets obtained via the TDF ticket raffle table at the BC/EFA Flea Market & Auction, which resulted in my own “blind date” with First Date,  a new, original musical currently playing at the Longacre Theater.

First Date marquee

I will admit, as I sat in the balcony of the Longacre (a theater I visited frequently when La Cage aux Folles was playing there a few years back) I had preconceived notions about the show I was about to see. This was a new musical written by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, who are (at least to my knowledge) Broadway newcomers themselves, and the show was about the first (blind) date of Aaron and Casey, unfolding in real-time. My expectations were not really that high, figuring that the show would be rife with sexual innuendo, cultural stereotypes, and cliché jokes typically found in sitcoms revolving around dating singles. I was therefore pleasantly surprised that I thoroughly enjoyed First Date – while the aforementioned moments of sexual innuendo, cultural stereotypes and cliché jokes were present, there were also moments of sincerity and poignancy at the latter half of the ninety minute musical that left me (literally) wiping tears from my eyes.

I was not expecting that.

I was not expecting to feel such an emotional response to characters that at first glance seemed to be stock characters from a typical sitcom – the insecure, dorky guy who consistently says the wrong things and the independent, flirtatious girl who can’t seem to dislodge the chip on her shoulder. It’s clear from the start that both bring their own baggage to the restaurant where they have agreed to meet – the quintet of actors (Sara Chase, Kristoffer Cusick, Blake Hammond, Kate Loprest and Bryce Ryness) that round out the cast intermittently give voice to specters of their past – both real and imaginary – and provide exposition and introspection for the pair. These inner voices (expertly distinguished from the events happening in real-time by the stark sudden change in lighting, and noticeable additions to their costumes) included meddling best friends, concerned relatives and troublesome exes, all of whom attempt to provide guidance to Aaron and Casey throughout the evening. The show does end on a hopeful note (which I had anticipated), with the inner voices silenced, as each finds peace with their past and overcomes the perceived obstacles that had hindered them from taking a chance on romance.

First Date Cast list

The score was great, with a mix of genres and lyrics both moving and hilarious in showcasing the joys and woes of dating and relationships. The lighting and set design were done well, with events happening in real-time bathed in “normal” white light, while the interludes were accented in various colors. The fourth wall was broken at times as the two leads stopped the action to address the audience with their own inner monologue. As the central couple in question, Zachary Levi (Aaron) and Krysta Rodriguez (Casey), both best known for respectively starring in the TV shows “Chuck” and “Smash”, were fantastic and inhabited their roles comfortably and sang amazingly. Another standout performance came from Blake Hammond as the restaurant waiter who doled out advice to the blind date couple, and even has his own moment to shine with a solo song extolling the joys of love – he nearly stole the show (and I told him so at the stage door).

The stage door experience was one of the best ones I’ve had in a long while – there were metal barricades surrounding all three sides of the stage door, and we were instructed by the stage door security guy (whose name I did not learn) to stand at the front and right side of the barricades, leaving the left side completely empty. At first I thought that odd, as my “usual” stage door waiting spot at the Longacre (from all my times going to see La Cage) was on the left side, but it wasn’t long before the reason for leaving that space empty was revealed. The same stage door security guy explained that Krysta Rodriguez would sign everyone’s playbills and pose for photos for those who asked, Zachary Levi would not only sign everyone’s playbills, he would also stand by the empty side of the metal barricades and pose for photos with everyone – so each and every person who waited at the stage door got to have a few moments with him as their photo was taken. I have never heard of an actor doing this, especially one who is a well-known television actor – this was an extraordinarily generous and sweet thing to do. He also brought out a mini boom box which played Michael Jackson songs, which added to the party atmosphere.

First Date stage door

All in all, First Date exceeded my expectations and proved to be a fun evening watching an evening on stage unfold with a healthy dose of hilarity, a dash of heart and a hint of romance. I do recommend seeing this show, as it is an original story not based on a specific existing source material (a rare occurrence on Broadway these days) that has a catchy score and a fantastic cast. While my first impression of this show (prior to seeing it) was not too favorable, as the song “First Impression” says “first impressions are worth a second glance”.

First Date signed playbill