Two Show Day: The Hairy Ape & The Glass Menagerie

Last Wednesday, I went into NYC to see two productions of older plays. One of them, The Hairy Ape by Eugene O'Neill, is rarely performed; the other, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, is performed rather frequently. Both productions are radical reimaginings of what the authors had in mind for the expressionistic, dream-like dramas about identity in the greater world.

The Hairy Ape at the Park Avenue Armory was a stunning production. You walk into this gigantic steel shell of a theater covered in fog, through the playing area, over the rotating treadmill for the set pieces, and up into the bright yellow seating to watch the show. Then the lights come down and the production is not joking. Every inch of that gigantic space is used. Anything made of steel is the same bright yellow as the seats and stairs, but is manipulated beautifully by the lighting design to be any color of the rainbow at any given moment. The scenes rolled one into another, for better or for worse (I’m not a fan of how the stairs in the audience were used to kill time between longer scene changes, but at least they kept the action going). Bobby Canavale was a perfect Yank and I doubt I’ll see another production of the play that feels so modern despite its age.

The Glass Menagerie at the Belasco was a trip. I did not know when I picked my seat that I’d be a few feet away from the staircase the actors entered and exited from throughout the performance. Act I is performed with the houselights on and most of Act II is performed to candlelight while rain pours onto the stage. The set is so minimalistic that I heard people complaining before the show began. It’s four chairs around a kitchen table, a milk crate with records/the glass menagerie/the yearbook in it, and a prop shelf right at the proscenium arch you could see if you sat house right. These choices forced the audience to listen to the words onstage and it made the text feel immediate and real.

Madison Ferris is the best Laura I’ve ever seen. This is a strong Laura who knows why she does not feel safe going out in the real world but fears being that strong in front of her overbearing mother (Sally Fields giving a masterclass in Tennessee Williams). I found myself drawn to Laura even when she wasn’t talking (the cast, save the Gentleman Caller (Finn Wittrock, playing a very different character than I was used to seeing from him), was onstage almost the entire show) to watch her play with her records, polish her collection, or read the yearbook. This is where Laura showed herself. Every time she interacted with her brother Tom (Joe Mantello hitting all the beats and believably transforming between young ambition/frustration and mature nostalgia), she was safely seated in her own little corner of music and art and life. 

This is not a traditional production, but it is my favorite production I’ve seen. I’ve always viewed “A Memory Play” as an invitation to present The Glass Menagerie in different ways. This is a different production, for sure. Ferris’ Laura doesn’t have a limp, because Ferris is an actor with muscular dystrophy who uses a wheelchair to get around. This Laura is painfully aware that she cannot hide unless she literally hides from the world. Tom is significantly older, meaning we’re actually viewing this production from his perspective years later. Who knows how realistic we’re supposed to believe it all is? Can he only remember the orange kitchen set and Laura’s milk crate of belongings? Or is that all they had in the cavernous apartment? Was Amanda an older mother who couldn’t have a job outside of the house, or does Tom just remember her that way? And, frankly, I love that this production stressed the introductory monologue bit about The Gentleman Caller being a symbol and a realistic person. He’s a symbol to everyone except for Laura, who grows to believe he is real and really interested in her. I don’t like all the staging choices (I found the rainstorm onstage to be a distraction, to be honest) but I loved the interpretation of the text. We’re playing with memories and clearly this Tom only remembers the most bombastic moments of this year with his mother and sister in the apartment.

Regarding seating for both productions: the cheap seats are fine for The Hairy Ape as long as you are house left; house right, you’ll want to avoid 1 or 2 in a row as the giant shipping crate set piece used in every other scene has a solid wall, blocking off some of the action (I was in K3 and only couldn’t see the very back corner where, at most, one actor could stand). The ushers were also offering alternative seating for patrons who might struggle to walk up the stairs for the stadium seating, but I couldn’t see where those people were placed. The ushers were incredibly helpful navigating all the steps, especially when the fog was so thick upon entrance. The seating is steep enough that you won’t be blocked at all by the person in front of you (three steps between each row). 

The Glass Menagerie is probably best in the Orchestra. Mezzanine might not be bad (Balcony is a no-go for sure), but I was struggling to see everything in the candlelight scenes from the fourth row of the orchestra. The staircase the actors use is house right, so if you sit in the front row or on the right aisle you have to keep your bag under your seat and your feet tucked in. I feel house right or center is better just so you don’t risk losing some of Laura’s moments played by the proscenium arch; house left is best if you’re more interested in watching Tom deliver his monologues. The show has a lot of discounts the day of so it’s not hard to get a good orchestra seat for the full price of a mezzanine seat (or cheaper). They also offer rush for the very front row every day and the stage is not so high that it would be an issue to sit there.