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stage dive

Theater Reviews: The Glass Menagerie and Arguendo

The Glass Menagerie (at the Booth Theatre through January 5)

It takes a second, but only a second, for the magic to sink in: You’re watching Zachary Quinto, as Tom Wingfield, recite those famous opening lines (“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve”), and suddenly he falls backward into a Spartan set: couch, table, the diffident masculine silhouette of a coat rack. At this point, we’re still following an actor across a stage (what’s he doing with his hands? Is this the “trick”?) and maybe wondering just how self-conscious this reinvention of an American classic is going to get. Then Celia Keenan-Bolger enters as Laura—I won’t say how she does it—and Tom’s memory takes its first gulping breath as a living thing. In whisks Cherry Jones’s Amanda, and the spell is cast.

Tennessee Williams intended The Glass Menagerie to be the forward salient of a new “plastic theater” that would supplant cheap realism and deliver truth in a savage, ravishing dream. He lived long enough to see his experiment become a war horse. (It’s been on Broadway once a decade since the sixties.) Nearly 70 years on, it’s catechism, and even people who haven’t seen it think they have—it hangs suspended in our collective unconscious. Which is where director John Tiffany (Once, Black Watch) sets his simple, stunning conjuration of the great American “memory play”: In our fathomless shared darkness, where shapes swim up out of the murk to remind us of what we only think we remember.

What can possibly be new here? Nothing and everything. Amanda, as embodied by Jones, is still Williams’s nostalgic, squawking matriarch, parted from her precious illusions only by extreme force: For her, the Great Depression her family is weathering—after the catastrophic departure of the paterfamilias, the “telephone man who fell in love with long distances”—is merely a stopover between plantations. But there’s no mistaking her for the villain, as can be the case in lesser productions. Jones’s extraordinary face—where covert terrors undulate beneath the veneer of ridiculous gentility—is a map of vast, oppressive compassion.

Amanda’s secretive son, Tom, is that ­other sort of dreamer: the fugitive kind, a moviegoer and a night-cruiser, turning away from the past not out of optimism but desperation. Quinto’s known for his repressed Spock in the new Star Trek movies, and his cool caginess and sidelong, sharklike features are well deployed here, as is the effeminate manner he takes no pains to disguise around his mother and sister. This Tom is a genuinely guilty soul, not just a maudlin young man, and the focal point of his guilt is his fragile sister, Laura. Like Jones, Keenan-Bolger is revivifying an iconic role. She is the show’s soul and organizing principle; I’m not sure its witchcraft would work without her. (Jones, believe it or not, is not the center here—and her understanding of that accredits her genius.) Keenan-Bolger, her powerful chirp reduced to a broken flute, merges Laura seamlessly with the stylized movement choreographed by Steven Hoggett (Tiffany’s longtime collaborator), displaying a musical-theater vet’s surety and precision. Yet she’s still Williams’s Laura, a broken mouse with a bum leg, crippling anxiety, and a delicately curated inner life vividly represented by her treasury of glass animals. ¬†

Tiffany has thinned that herd down to a single unicorn, and this sets the keynote for his crystalline vision: simple, ­expressive gestures, both physical and designed, briefly and brightly illuminating the rich darkness—a world truly “lit by lightning,” in Tom’s famous phrase. The Wingfield home floats in a black pool of oblivion, a sliver of moon reflected in its surface (with no correlate in the sky). A fire-escape ladders up endlessly, diminishing into nothing. Tom, telling the story of the disastrous night he and his mother arranged a “gentleman caller” for Laura, trolls the shores of this little island; Amanda and Laura huddle inland, and their rare trips to the edge are memorable. As for the gentleman caller himself, Brian J. Smith finds new pathos and a guarded inner dignity in a character often played as a golden retriever.

If the pattern holds, and we get one Menagerie a decade, this will be a high point. I’m not sure what the two-thousand-teens did to earn this beautiful oubliette of a production (the aughts got Christian Slater in a leather jacket), but let’s just say the next decade has its work cut out: This is a grand and true illusion, not just to be lauded and gawked at—though you will, and that’s appropriate—but studied. Watch the hands. Be led and misled by them. Remember it differently this time.

Arguendo (at the Public Theater through October 27)

There’s no shortage of earthshattering moments in American jurisprudence—you know, the Roes, the Browns, all that intrinsically dramatic Inherit the Wind stuff. And then there’s Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc., the 1991 Supreme Court case that grappled with an enduring constitutional quandary: Does all-nude dancing constitute free speech? (And, in a related question, do pasties and G-strings muzzle free expression?) The harrumphing transcript of this idiosyncratic but not inconsiderable episode in SCOTUS history (spawned from a case originally brought by an adult bookstore and a strip club against the state of Indiana) serves as most of the script for Arguendo, the latest from brilliant brats of Elevator Repair Service (Gatz). In 80 dizzy minutes of towering, tottering legalese, hilariously atrocious wigs and highly athletic swivel-chair-ballet, five performer-creators (Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol and Ben Williams) do the seemingly impossible: They make the Rehnquist Court feel as intellectually rigorous as The Muppet Show. (And I mean that flatteringly, with respect to The Muppet Show.)

ERS unpacks a text the way Buster Keaton unpacks a suitcase: Expect an evening of meticulous mayhem. Guided by conceiver-director John Collins and aided by the endlessly creative video projections of Ben Rubin (who fashions an epic comic landscape out of a black-and-white court transcript), the ensemble teases out the muffled passions and inarticulable absurdities throbbing beneath the intellectual chessmatch of Barnes—is this an obscenity case? Is dance really “expression”? “Why do they call this place a ‘bookstore’?”—and crystallize the justices as characters without resorting to direct caricature. (Well, okay: You can’t help but caricature Scalia. In fact, I’d petition ERS for a Frasier-style spinoff called Scalia.) The black-robed sages literally circle Indiana Attorney General Uhl (played by Williams and Knight) and respondent attorney Ennis (Iveson), swooping down like vultures one minute, creeping up like Skeksis the next, depending on the line of attack. Impressive passadoes of logic are superimposed on the fundamental silliness of what the law leaves almost unsaid and unsayable: that the state, and several people in it, will happily accept a lap dance from a woman in a G-string, but balk at the same hindquarters when they’re fully uncovered. The whole nature of expression is called into question in the uninhibited finale, where briefs of all sorts go flying—and then questioned again in a somewhat gnomic epilogue, starring Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (She wasn’t on the court when it decided Barnes.) The show’s ultimate thrust is a bit of a feint, but the legal term “arguendo” translates colloquially to “for the sake of argument,” not “to conclude definitively and forcefully.” There are delicate netherparts on display here; to bring a gavel down would endanger them needlessly. And as a friend of mine used to say, “to reach a conclusion is to limit the potential of argument.” Arguendo is a grower, not a show-er. Expose yourself to it.

Photo: Michael J. Lutch/©Michael J. Lutch