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September 27, 2013

TT: The one that got away

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I review two important New York revivals, the off-Broadway production of William Inge's Natural Affection and the Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Here's an excerpt.

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1375897_10151948231817193_1734878249_n.jpgWilliam Inge wrote four straight Broadway hits, followed by three straight flops. Seven years after the last flop closed, he killed himself. It took three decades before his reputation began to recover from the effects of his back-to-back failures. That's the saddest theater story I know, and it gets sadder: TACT/The Actors Company Theatre has just given "Natural Affection," Inge's second flop, its first New York revival, and it turns out to be a play of real quality, one that the critics of 1963 simply didn't understand. That's not just sad--it's a crime.

One outraged newspaper reviewer complained about the "cheap crudities" and "sensual sensationalism" of "Natural Affection." While neither charge is true, it's easy enough to see why Inge's tale of an unhappy single mother from Chicago (Kathryn Erbe) and her emotionally disturbed son (Chris Bert) was so hard for critics and playgoers to take. Among other things, "Natural Affection" deals with adultery, alcoholism, child abuse, homosexuality, incest and murder. Nowadays such topics are old hat, and there's nothing gratuitous about the way in which they're portrayed here--but at a time when "The Beverly Hillbillies" was still America's favorite TV show, it was not merely daring but downright reckless to cram all of them into a single evening. Worse yet, Inge had taken care in his stage hits, "Bus Stop" and "Picnic" in particular, to leaven his characters' despair with glimmers of hope. Not this time: Here the curtain falls on a tableau as bleak as the inside of a gas chamber.

Strong stuff, in short, and in a less well judged production, "Natural Affection" could easily come off sounding excessive. But Jenn Thompson, who directed TACT's perception-changing 2012 revival of Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers," has staged it with an understated simplicity that keeps the horrors in proportion...

glassopen460.jpg"The Glass Menagerie," which rivals "Our Town" as the finest of all American plays, was ill served by David Leveaux' 2005 Broadway staging, a tone-deaf embarrassment redeemed only by Sarah Paulson's lyrical performance as Laura. Now Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre has exported its much-praised revival, directed by John Tiffany ("Once") and starring Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto, both of whom received hats-off out-of-town reviews. I see why they got them--but I respectfully dissent.

The trouble starts with Mr. Quinto, who plays Tom, Williams' not-very-fictional alter ego, in a loud-voiced, explicitly campy manner that I suspect was modeled on the public demeanor of the author himself. Yes, Tom is gay, and it makes good dramatic sense to play him that way, as Patch Darragh did (if far more subtly) in the Roundabout Theatre Company's brilliant 2010 Off-Broadway revival. But Mr. Quinto's mile-wide characterization inevitably competes for attention with Ms. Jones' similarly showy performance as Amanda, the smothering mother who fears for her children's future yet cannot set them free to face the world. It's not that Ms. Jones is anything other than a stage actress of the first rank, one of the best we have. But she plays Amanda all the way up to the hilt, flinging her arms around like a pair of fire hoses and putting on a double-stuffed southern accent that sounds as though her upper plate had come loose. Between her and Mr. Quinto, you can barely see the play for the acting....

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Read the whole thing here.

The trailer for Natural Affection:

Posted September 27, 2013 12:00 AM

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