Saturday, August 6, 2011

Off Broadway: The Pretty Trap

Katharine Houghton, Nisi Sturgis, Robert Eli and Loren Dunn in The Pretty Trap. Photo by Ben Hider.
After more than sixty years, The Pretty Trap, Tennessee Williams’ one act precursor to his much better known autobiographical masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie, is only now having its New York premiere at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre. One’s inclination is to say “Well, it’s about time,” but that really would be overstating the case. Not that this very well done production by Cause Celebre isn’t likely to prove of great interest to literary historians in general and Williams scholars in particular; it surely will. But for the typical theatre-goer, more interested in being entertained than in learning about a play’s evolutionary development, not so much.

The four characters in The Pretty Trap – Amanda Wingfield (Katharine Houghton), Laura Wingfield (Nisi Sturgis), Tom Wingfield (Loren Dunn) and the Gentleman Caller (Robert Eli) – are the same four characters who appear in The Glass Menagerie, but they are not nearly as well fleshed out in this earlier version. To be sure, Amanda, the one-time Southern belle, is just as obsessed with finding a husband for her morbidly introverted daughter Laura in The Pretty Trap as she is in The Glass Menagerie. But the overbearing narcissism and almost delusional bouts of nostalgia Amanda exhibits in The Glass Menagerie, which at times seem to border on outright personality disorder, are much less apparent in The Pretty Trap; here she is considerably more good humored - indeed one might almost say “normal” (albeit still irritating). (Houghton, incidentally, does a wonderful job of bringing this somewhat lower-keyed Amanda to life in The Pretty Trap and one might only speculate on how terrific she might have been had she been given the opportunity to play the even richer role of Amanda in The Glass Menagerie.)

Similarly,Laura in The Pretty Trap is also a far cry from Laura in The Glass Menagerie. In both plays she is painfully shy, but she is not also physically handicapped in The Pretty Trap as she is in The Glass Menagerie and her obsessive relationship to her collection of glass animals, which is at the symbolic core of The Glass Menagerie isn’t much more than an incidental allusion in The Pretty Trap. And much the same can be said of both Tom and the Gentleman Caller: neither is nearly as fully developed a character in The PrettyTrap as he is in The Glass Menagerie.

The Pretty Trap was subtitled “A Comedyin One Act” by Williams but it really isn’t very funny (except, perhaps, by comparison to the truly depressing The Glass Menagerie) and it does have a happy ending. But tacking a happy ending on the play didn’t make it a better work but merely a shallower one.

The director and the entire cast (especially Houghton) do a first rate job with the material they’ve been given but, notwithstanding that, the play itself, running under 50 minutes, is slight. Indeed, it really is little more than the germ of an idea for The Glass Menagerie, the exceptional work that succeeded it.

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