Devoted readers of this column will need no reminder that the last thing I am is an Anglophile. In the way that we all have complicated relationships with places and people we’ve left, I’ve been hating the British for years.
Born in England, I came to New York to escape mother. And being a fine, upstanding Englishman who naturally speaks in an accent that causes dazzled strangers to swoon in a dead faint at the first irresistible sound of a plummy vowel, there’s absolutely no need for me to be an Anglophile. Besides, the idea of kneeling on one knee before the Brits has always been alien to me.
Should Her Majesty one day offer me a knighthood for services to theater, I’ll consider making an exception. It would be most ungracious of me to do otherwise. Frankly, an earldom would seal the deal. But I’ve never been enthusiastic about kneeling before anyone, have you? And yet whenever anything British appears on Broadway, everyone shouts “Hurrah!” and dances the hora in the aisles.
I came to live in this exuberant, generous land to experience all things American, particularly in theater. And what have I found? The American theater worships all things British. It’s been a while since you won the American War of Independence. And yet in theater, we-the royal we, the never-to-be-defeated, effortlessly superior we-still rule.
I was reminded of this by a recent, big Times article entitled “The New British Invasion.” Looks like the same old British invasion to me. But its thrust was that three of America’s dearest, best-known classics have been placed in the hands of British directors. The implication is that American directors aren’t up to the task.
In a triple whammy of Anglophilia, the veteran Anthony Page is the director of the Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? David Leveaux-who also staged the controversial revival of the hallowed Fiddler on the Roof-directs The Glass Menagerie on Broadway. And the youngest of the three, Edward Hall, is the director of the Roundabout’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
If the situation were reversed-if today three Americans were directing British classics in the West End-I’ve little doubt there would be an uproar. After all, they’ve been saying “Yanks go home” since World War II. But they take pride in their theater culture. They have confidence in it. They connect to the past-to the power of language and the great classical tradition. In a sense, they’ve been weaned on the past.
The continuing tragedy of American theater is that it doesn’t have confidence in its own culture. It doesn’t reveal security in its own glorious past. If it did, there would be no need to ask British directors to stage American classics. There would be no need for Anglophilia.
Now, on the one hand, I don’t believe in cultural borders. Theater is an international art form, and artistic exchanges can revitalize both cultures. On the other hand, I strongly believe that American artists should not be treated as also-rans because the British are cravenly thought of as somehow “better.”
If the American theater has any future, it will come from nurturing exciting young American talent-not from imports. But is the current wave of British directors proving a success?
Anthony Page is an immensely experienced director, but he has never been an innovative one. You will not get from the dependable Mr. Page a revolutionary reading of a classic. That aside, his mixed production last season of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was poorly received. His London revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, starring Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins, no less, struck me as so English in accent and manner that Mr. Albee’s Connecticut could have been thoroughly middle-class Sussex.
Mr. Page’s strength, however, is the fine performances he usually gets from his star actors-in this case, the wonderfully big, boozy Martha of Kathleen Turner in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But Bill Irwin’s George is a miscast mouse she eats for breakfast. David Harbour’s Nick is first- rate, but the insecure Honey of Mirielle Enos has been encouraged to go for broad, easy laughs from the gallery. It’s a popular, and unbalanced, production of Mr. Albee’s American classic.
The appeal-and danger-of David Leveaux’s more modernist work is his unpredictability. He never treats a classic play as a museum piece, but re-explores and even reinvents it to bring it to fresh life. His productions of Electra and Anna Christie, as well as plays by Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, have been outstanding. But he’s stumbled badly with his interpretation of Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.
The casting is partly at fault. One of my acerbic colleagues has said that if you missed Jessica Lange’s Blanche DuBois a few seasons ago, you should catch her Amanda Wingfield. Ms. Lange’s Amanda is an older, extremely arch version of her Blanche (which, I regret to say, wasn’t too successful in the first place). Christian Slater was a late replacement as Tom, the inconsolable son who dreams of becoming a writer (Williams’ young self), but he’s miscast even so. Mr. Slater is the wrong age and lacks Williams’ essential lyricism.
Then again, the director’s blatant hint that there’s a sexual connection between Tom and his trapped sister, Laura (modeled by Williams on his adored, damaged sister, Rose), is-to put it politely-a misreading. But what’s essentially wrong with Mr. Leveaux’s staging of the memory play isn’t that he’s been too experimental with it, but too literal.
He’s returned to the text and taken Williams at his impressionistic word. The playwright didn’t want to repeat what he called “the exhausted theater of realistic conventions,” and the director has fulfilled his wish almost to the letter. He’s respected him too much!
The Glass Menagerie was Williams’ breakthrough play, but the young and inexperienced playwright made a novice’s mistake in his stage directions. He placed the Wingfield living room nearest the audience, and behind it, the dining room with an inner curtain separating it from the action. If you follow that literally-as Mr. Leveaux does-you end up with the dining-room scenes far too distant from us, and worse, played in shadow behind a gauze curtain.
Young dramatists-even geniuses like Williams-need help from time to time. The only way to stage the play is to place the two rooms side by side. The unmoving, and even wayward, performances aside, by going after the plastic, dream-like quality of the great play, Mr. Leveaux has ended up doing everything right and everything wrong.
A Streetcar Named Desire is Edward Hall’s first staging of Tennessee Williams, and I’m afraid this young and most talented director is at sea. Todd Haines, the artistic direct or of the Roundabout, has said he selected Mr. Hall after seeing his production of the Shakespeare history cycle of kingly slaughter, Rose Rage. You might as well cast an ax murderer as a delicate flower. Rose Rage has absolutely nothing in common with Williams’ tragedy of bruised hearts.
Mr. Hall’s notion of New Orleans bluesiness is like a wide-eyed British tourist’s. His mise-en-scène is loud, obvious and crude. John C. Reilly would make a passable, soft Mitch. He’s utterly miscast as the bullying, animalistic Stanley Kowalski. There’s no sex appeal in him, no musicality in his strained, blustery shouting. There’s no “animal joy in his being” (as Williams describes it). He actually muffles Stanley’s brutality as if he’s afraid of it, as if he wants to be liked more.
Amy Ryan is wrong as Stella. She should be younger and peachier (she’s meant to be pregnant) and more ambiguous. Chris Bauer’s Mitch is dully so-so. Natasha Richardson is left to go it alone as Blanche, and under the circumstances she achieves a miracle. She hits all the desperate, tender, self-deceiving notes as Williams’ fragile heroine who loses her mind. But she’s acting alone.
Nowhere is Ms. Rich-ardson more believeable than when she nails Blanche’s memorable line of heartbreak and yearning, “I don’t want realism. I want magic!” Those words can only have poignant meaning in the theater, and they go to the heart of Williams.
Mr. Hall ends the evening with a bad cut in the closing moments, confirming his uncertain touch. But let me at least correct a frequent misunderstanding about the play itself. Blanche is often assumed to be a fading beauty in middle age. In fact, Williams tells us she’s “about 30.” Stella, her younger sister, should be five years younger, about 25. And Stanley and Mitch are meant to be 28 or 30, not fortysomething.
The moral is: Brits go home!
What I mean to say is that British directors are not infallible or necessarily “right,” and that the American classics-like Chekhov, like Ibsen-may be revisited any time in the hope that someone will get close to the core of their eternal meaning.