Thursday, October 24, 2013

NYC Theater Roundup: “The Glass Menagerie,” “Bad Jews,” “The Model Apartment”

The Glass Menagerie
Written by Tennessee Williams; directed by John Tiffany
Performances through February 23, 2014
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Bad Jews
Written by Joshua Harmon; directed by Daniel Aukin
Performances through December 22, 2013
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY

The Model Apartment
Written by Donald Margulies; directed by Evan Cabnet
Performances through November 1, 2013
Primary Stages, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

Jones and Quinto in The Glass Menagerie (photo: Michael J. Lutch)
As any bored high school student knows, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is filled with symbols right from its title collection of fragile figurines. So for director John Tiffany to cram his new production with visual markers is to make a familiar play obvious. Far from illuminating a classic, he does the opposite: it’s Glass Menagerie for Dummies.

Tiffany wants to shake the cobwebs out of this overfamiliar play, but he’s done what a group of clever high school seniors would do in theater class. Tom’s opening monologue declares off the bat that this is a memory play, so sister Laura comes out of the sofa and mother Amanda appears from behind a dressing screen to reenact these memories. The Wingfield family is stuck in its own self-deluded existence, so their home floats on a sea of black, showing how separated they are from the real world. Since they are unable to break free from that insular world, a fire escape rising to infinity shows that no one sees an obvious exit.

Laura’s menagerie has been reduced to a lone unicorn, making something tangible simply symbolic. A “little silver slipper of a moon” hangs to our left throughout; when Amanda mentions it, we wonder why it took so long to notice. The characters—mainly Tom—make occasional herky-jerky motions that apparently trigger flashbacks, courtesy movement director Steven Hoggett. Nico Muhly’s music, while understated, too often unnecessarily underlines the drama.

So what’s left? When Tiffany isn’t trying to replace Williams’ vision with his own, there are affecting moments like the scene between The Gentleman Caller and Laura, one of the play’s foolproof scenes pretty much done as written. Brian J. Smith and Celia Keenan-Bolger, both quite good in that scene, manage to escape the director’s heavy hand, but otherwise the actors must do double duty to Williams and Tiffany. So Cherry Jones (Amanda) and Zachary Quinto (Tom) are severely hamstrung, and their portrayals suffer in a frustratingly uneven Glass Menagerie

The cast of Bad Jews (photo: Joan Marcus)
Joshua Harmon’s comedy Bad Jews is as blunt as its title. Of its four characters, two matter: cousins Daphna and Liam, she a devoutly traditional Jew and he proudly modern, dating shiksas like his latest blonde Melody, whom he brings to his brother Jonah’s apartment after missing their beloved Poppy’s (grandfather’s) funeral. Daphna is personally offended that Liam didn’t get back in time for Poppy’s ceremony because he lost his phone on the Aspen slopes with his ski bunny, and much of the play consists of the two cousins going at it—sometimes hilariously and devastatingly, more often stridently and redundantly—while Melody, content to look at her smartphone, and a nearly catatonic Jonah sit idly by.

Harmon writes funny lines, although some are too witty to be believable, as when Daphna nails Melody as someone “who dresses like she was conceived and live-water birthed in a Talbot’s.” The main problem is that these characters exist to show off Harmon’s cleverness. Melody talks about majoring in opera (hence her name, ha ha), but when she opens her mouth, she sounds worse than Katy Perry sans autotune. After Daphna explains why Jews can’t have tattoos, Melody arrives with an ugly, huge cleft note inked on her calf. (Jonah’s final revelation to Daphna of his own tattoo tribute to Poppy is a desperate twist of fake dramatic irony.)

As the play progresses, Daphna seems so delusional and sociopathic that the more measured Liam wins our sympathy by default, even if he disingenuously claims Poppy wanted him to give Poppy’s own heirloom, the precious chai (which he improbably hid in his mouth from the Nazis) to Melody. Despite Daniel Aukin’s slick directing and good actors, the balance is fatally off. As centered as Michael Zegen’s Liam is, Tracee Chimo’s Daphna is so borderline unhinged from the start, she has nowhere interesting to go. But Chimo’s head of bushy hair, which deserves a credit of its own—Harmon's script description is that it’s “Hair that screams: Jew”—is a case of a character’s appearance saying more than the writer and performer.

Davis and Grody in The Model Apartment (photo: James Leynse)
Like Bad Jews, Donald Margulies’ The Model Apartment is unafraid to let fly with potentially offensive invective that might alienate its core audience. Although Margulies’ play is superior, it too is tripped up by unwelcome contrivances. First, we are to believe that Lola and Max, an elderly Brooklyn couple, would get into their car and drive all the way to Florida overnight, only to find their new condo not yet ready: so they are put into a smaller apartment to tide them over. Second, we are to believe that their flaky daughter Debby—after discovering they left, obviously to get away from her—tracks them down to their temporary place. Third, we are to believe that Debby’s young boyfriend Neil also ends up at her surprised parents’ place.

Of course, this is a play of dreams, nightmares and heightened reality, but such gimmickry casts a pall over an intelligent exploration of Jewish guilt over surviving the Holocaust. Max, who lost his first wife and young daughter Deborah to the Nazis, met Lola in a concentration camp; they came to America to start anew and had Debby, who becomes the living, breathing embodiment of their guilt. This incredibly obese loose cannon’s neediness, hypermanic behavior and constant barrage of nasty anti-Semitic putdowns are a metaphor for Max and Lola’s own difficulties putting their horrific past behind them.

Although the Debby/Deborah pairing is a mite precious—a grown-up Deborah appears in Max’s dreams and her appearance at the end suggests he’s happy to live out his years with a fantasy Deborah rather than a real Debby—Margulies creates such psychologically acute characterizations and dialogue that his play is devastating despite its flaws.

Evan Cabnet’s lucid staging on Lauren Helpern’s unerringly accurate antiseptic condo set features outstanding acting by Mark Blum and Kathryn Grody as the harried couple hoping for peace and quiet away from their monstrous creation. But Diane Davis’s tour de force as Debby/Deborah is the production’s centerpiece. Her quick changes from huge Debby to slim Deborah and back are only obvious physical manifestations; this gifted actress also nails the emotional arcs of both women as remarkably as Margulies does.

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