By Barbara & Scott Siegel
The power of expectations: Church & State and The Glass Menagerie
The way we react to a play depends a great deal upon our expectations. Lower the bar enough and a show can seem great compared to what you expected when the curtain went up. A lot of shows have benefited from that perspective. Take the famously long-running Naked Boys Singing. When we saw that a million years ago at the now-defunct Actors Playhouse in the West Village, we arrived – as did most critics – expecting a one-joke musical and a lot of low (wink, wink) comedy along with a cast full of naked boys. Instead, we found a rather sophisticated, smart, and sassy show with excellent songs, charming skits, and wonderful performances (by a cast full of naked boys). The show became something of a phenomenon precisely because it was much better than anybody thought it was going to be. This game of expectations, of course, can go either way, which brings us to both the Off-Broadway production of Church & State at New World Stages and the Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie at The Belasco.
The first fifteen minutes or so of Church & State – a supposed comedy — are simply excruciating; everything about it screams low-brow sitcom. The set-up takes place in the green room right before a speech that a conservative North Carolina Senator, up for re-election, is about to give. We find out right away that an interview that he previously gave to a political blogger is about to hit the internet in which he stated his doubts about the existence of God.
We know; this doesn’t sound very funny – especially when you learn that all of this is taking place in the aftermath of a school shooting in which many children were killed. Truly, not the stuff of comedy. That’s why the sitcom approach to these characters – the ultra pushy wife, the tough Jewish female campaign manager, and the nerdy Senator, all seem so screwy.
But then the play sheds its marketing hook of being a comedy and reveals itself to be a rather effective and serious soapbox play. The Senator stands his ground. He doesn’t walk back his comments about God and Guns, and unexpected events unfold (which we shall not reveal). The upshot is that the play becomes rather moving – precisely because we had no idea that this dreadful beginning could turn out so nobly.
There is, however, one caveat to the pleasant surprise of Church & State. We couldn’t help wondering why in the world it was performing here in New York City – preaching to the choir when the place it should really be playing is North Carolina! It would be a much more courageous piece of work there than here.
Then there is the expectations that come with revivals of famous plays.
The oft-revived Tennessee Williams classic arrived on Broadway with high expectations: Sally Field as Amanda and the longtime wunderkind director, Joe Mantello, taking a turn as the star actor/narrator role of Tom, and the play’s director, the hot-as-a-pistol, Sam Gold. The result: high expectations and big, big, big disappointments.
The biggest mistake one can make in reviving a beloved play is not being true to the text. Time and again, Tennessee Williams wrote one thing and we see something else up on stage that belies his language. This isn’t a matter of interpretation; this is a matter of alarm bells going off. For instance, Laura (Madison Ferris) is supposed to have a limp (it says so in the text). The actress hired to play the role has MS and is wheelchair bound. When she leaves her wheelchair, she has to literally crawl on all fours. Therefore, when The Gentleman Caller (Finn Wittrock) tells Laura that he didn’t notice why she was so self-conscious in school, it’s simply ridiculous – and it takes the audience right out of the play.
Of course, casting actors with disabilities can be put in the same category as color-blind casting, but the more specific the role is, the more one must be judicious in making that kind of casting choice.
One can appreciate, intellectually, what Sam Gold is attempting to do throughout The Glass Menagerie. Like the way he has stripped away the set design, he is trying to get to the stripped down, essential Tennessee Williams. What he is missing, however, is that the beauty and brilliance of Williams is in the very details that are being stripped away.