LONDON – A treasured figurine isn’t the only thing that gets smashed in “The Glass Menagerie,” the Tennessee Williams play that has brought the film star Amy Adams to London in a rare stage outing. This comparatively muted revival of the 1944 classic opened Tuesday at the Duke of York’s Theater in the British capital and runs through Aug. 27.
Williams’s breakout drama chronicles a family’s disintegration. The best productions should leave the audience as shattered as the unicorn that gets toppled from its perch at the play’s devastating climax.
And yet my eyes remained pretty much dry, unusually for a play whose most memorable versions pull you into a tortuous family dynamic. This production’s quieter, less urgent approach comes into its own in the second act, but elsewhere, it is too removed from the play’s intensifying sadness.
The story is as potent as ever. We look on as the fretful Amanda Wingfield (Adams, speaking in an ace southern accent) runs roughshod over her two children in their cramped St. Louis home. Tom, a budding writer, is trapped in a soul-crushing job at a warehouse, and Laura (Lizzie Annis), his older sister, is an indrawn, self-described “cripple.” The anxious trio are joined for a fateful dinner by Tom’s co-worker, Jim (Victor Alli), the much-anticipated “gentleman caller” who turns out to have been Laura’s longtime schoolgirl crush.
Jeremy Herrin, the director, has increased the number of actors to five, casting two men in the role of Tom, Williams’s portrait of himself as a restless young artist.
Paul Hilton, a Tony nominee last year for “The Inheritance” on Broadway, plays the older Tom, who looks back remorsefully on the family he could never fully escape. Hilton’s soliloquies bookend the production, and the actor prowls the stage throughout, often peering at his family through a large display case of fragile ornaments that dominates Vicki Mortimer’s bleak set. (Above the action for this “memory play” is a screen on which the video designer Ash J. Woodward projects hazy images that come in and out of focus, as recollections tend to do.)
And Tom Glynn-Carney plays the young Tom, forever facing off against the domineering mother who derides her son as a “selfish dreamer.” Worse than that, he commits the cardinal sin of introducing Jim, an outsider who awakens a romantic spark in the lovesick Laura that is quickly dashed: Jim, we learn, has a serious girlfriend in the (unseen) Betty.
The sharing of the role, while intriguing in principle, doesn’t add up to much. The two Toms acknowledge one another in passing at the start but seem otherwise to inhabit separate universes: The compact, feisty Glynn-Carney couldn’t be more different, physically and emotively, from the lanky, slightly affected Hilton, who takes a while to settle into his American accent. (Glynn-Carney’s, by contrast, is pitch perfect.)
There’s far more power to the candlelit encounter between the shy Laura and the well-meaning Jim, who overreaches in his affections to catastrophic effect. Not long out of drama school, Alli is immediately likable as the “nice, ordinary, young man” – to quote Williams’s description of the character – who exerts an extraordinary hold over Laura. And Annis, who has cerebral palsy and is here making her professional stage debut, prompts a palpable stillness in the theater as Laura seizes up when Jim departs.
What of Adams, the name attraction, who last appeared onstage in an alfresco production of the musical “Into the Woods” in New York a decade ago? The six-time Oscar nominee is a far younger Amanda than such recent interpreters of this role as Cherry Jones, Sally Field and Isabelle Huppertand her softly-spoken demeanor makes for more of a fusspot than the harridan this matriarch can sometimes become.
What’s lacking is the gathering sense of fury from Amanda at a lifetime of betrayal and disappointment, though the most frequent projection above the stage is that of the children’s errant father, the “telephone man” who “fell in love with long distances” and quit his family altogether.
Adams’s natural appeal makes Amanda’s account of the gentleman callers that once brought her cheer believable, but she, like the production itself, could do with being less subdued. “The Glass Menagerie” may make a plot point of fragility, but the play’s depiction of a family in free fall needs a more robust performance at its center.
The Glass Menagerie
Through Aug. 27 at the Duke of York’s Theater, in London.