Saturday, October 1, 2011

"The Pretty Trap": An Alternate Version of a Classic

Review by Judd Hollander

Many plays go through multiple changes and versions before their final form, but seldom as much as with The Pretty Trap by Tennessee Williams, a one-act comedy/drama which would eventually become The Glass Menagerie, one of the classics of American Theatre. Yet The Pretty Trap is not an abbreviated version of the later story; rather it is an almost altogether different interpretation and told from a much different viewpoint, although the characters, setting and story is basically the same. The show only now making its New York debut, at the Acorn Theatre.

Set in perhaps early 1940s St. Louis, The Pretty Trap, (supposedly written about 1942) is the story of the Wingfield Family. Matriarch Amanda (Katharine Houghton), whose husband disappeared more than 20 years earlier; her painfully shy daughter Laura (Nisi Sturgis), who would prefer to spend time with her collection of tiny glass animals rather than other people; and Amanda's son Tom (Loren Dunn), a dreamer and would-be writer whom Amanda doubts will amount to anything.

While Amanda has pretty much given up on Tom, as seen in their brief conversations together, she is quite worried about Laura's future and what will happen to her after Amanda passes on. As Amanda caustically notes, women like Laura have two options: a business career or a husband. With the former not much of a possibility, for reasons explained in the play, Amanda settles on the latter in the form of a Gentleman Caller named Jim (Robert Eli), a co-worker of Tom's who is coming over for dinner.

Laura however, is not at all happy at being put on display and it falls to Amanda to cajole, wheedle, plea and persuade her daughter to join them at dinner and also arrange it so Laura and Jim spend some quality time together where hopefully things will turn out happily for all concerned.

This is quite a pleasurable show to behold; though when comparing it to other pieces in the Williams canon, it's a rather lightweight affair. Still the tale is both sweet and enjoyable, with quite the performance by Houghton. While it's overshadowed by its far more famous successor, The Pretty Trap, the title referring to snares young women set for eligible men, is able to stand on its own as a charming yet telescopic look at a family in turmoil and transition.

There's a carefully constructed drama-comedic line running throughout the play (it's described as a comedy in the press notes) and indeed there are many times when the play feels almost sitcomish. (Such as when Amanda peeks in on Laura and Jim at an awkward moment.) At the same time there's a lot of heartfelt emotion present when Amanda describes her own past and struggles, often with a bitter note and sarcastic aside. Plus the dinner often takes on an almost dirge-like atmosphere with Jim, Tom and Laura desperately wishing they were somewhere else. If there's one major difference from The Pretty Trap and The Glass Menagerie, it's that there's no sense of ultimate gravitas, pain or tragedy in The Pretty Trap that permeates so many of the other Williams works.

Photo by Ben Hider
The Pretty Trap could also be called The Amanda Wingfield Story, as it is essentially her tale of how she has been forced to survive and raise two children essentially on her own. As such, Amanda, the faded southern belle (another element Williams often uses) is by far the most well-rounded character in the piece. Brittle, yet determined; and angry, yet all too much a realist. She knows life has dealt her a rough hand, yet makes no complaints even as she reels off a litany of the jobs she has been forced to take to earn money for her family, all the while trusting no one but herself. (She made it a point to check out the Gentleman Caller before he arrives with Tom). All of these qualities, as well as her continual mental and physical actions, are brought together quite nicely to reveal the character as both a mother from hell and also a complicated individual who wants only the best for her children. (The best as she sees it, of course.)

Dunn does adequate work as Tom, through this character, a stand-in for Williams, is the most underdeveloped of the four. Rather ironic as in The Glass Menagerie it is Tom, not Amanda, who takes center stage, with the story being told from his point of view. Here however, Tom seems little more than an afterthought, existing only for plot reasons and one is left wishing the character had more incite or passion to make him somewhat interesting.

Eli is fine as the Gentleman Caller, a sort of everyman outsider brought into an uncomfortable situation, one which most in the audience can relate to. As with Tom, the character doesn't have that much depth to him, but he comes across with a charming and caring attitude that works rather well in his scenes with the emotionally closed-off Laura.

Sturgis's Laura is the catalyst for the second part of the story. At first a terribly timid girl, she eventually finds herself opening up to Jim when he reveals his ability to take the time to see behind the shyness, allowing Laura to experience a sort of comfortable joy for the first time in a long while.

Direction by Anthony Marsellis is very strong, allowing Haughton, Sturgis and Eli room to work and explore their characters. (Dunn really doesn't have that much of a character to explore.) Yet Marsellis is also able to keep the show grounded in the time in which it is set, thus allowing the underlying tensions to come through when necessary.

Ray Klausen's design of the Wingfield home is excellent, showing a family stuck in a time long gone, the house and its furnishings almost exactly the same as when Amanda's husband disappeared. This effect adds a sort of loss to the proceedings, with the home and Amanda representing the past, the Gentleman Caller being a stand-in for the future, and Tom and Laura caught in-between. Bernie Dove's lighting is nicely atmospheric, as his work with sound design.

Touching and intimate, yet with more than the usual flashes of humor found in a Williams work, The Pretty Trap makes for an interesting piece of theatre. Would it be as interesting were it not for The Glass Menagerie? No, but the play does offer a fresh incite into Williams and the characters he would later make famous. 

The Pretty Trap
Featuring Katharine Houghton (Amanda Wingfield), Nisi Sturgis (Laura Wingfield), Loren Dunn (Tom Wingfield), Robert Eli (Gentleman Caller)

Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Anthony Marsellis
Scenic Designer: Ray Klausen
Lighting and Sound: Bernie Dove
Costumes: David Toser
Production Stage Manager: Anita Ross
Stage Manager: C. Renee Alexander
Assistant to the Producer: Brendan Hill
Public Relations: Springer Associates PR
Accounting: Ira Schall
Legal Counsel: M. Graham Coleman, Esq.

Presented by CAUSE CÉLÈBRE 
Artistic Director: Susan Charlotte
in Association with Mary J. Davis

The Acorn Theatre
Theater Row Studios

410 West 42nd Street
Closed: August 21, 2011

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