She charged Broadway in 1992 in the make-or-break role of Blanche Du Bois in Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning paean to gracious Southern living, A Streetcar Named Desire, and she did it in the same theatre where another Jessica (Tandy) introduced to the world the belle of Belle Reve in Streetcar's first historic stop Dec. 3, 1948. Now she's back—obviously, for bear—as an earlier, older but no-less-delusional draft of Blanche, Amanda Wingfield, in Williams' tenderest, most telling memory-play, The Glass Menagerie. And guess where?
"I'm very happy to be back there," she declared on arriving at the Bryant Park Grill for the play's opening-night party March 22. "It's a wonderful theatre." With a history, too.
She will be Broadway's last Blanche Du Bois for a month more. On April 24, Natasha Richardson will trot out her Blanche at Studio 54, once the New York equivalent of the Moon Lake Casino but now fading into theatrical distinction. It seems too short a reign.
"Not quite yesterday, but that's kind of you," she simpered to a hyperbolic scribe like a well- and highly mannered coquette at the cotillion. Her heart melting laugh followed.
"I have to say I have a real soft spot in my heart for Williams characters. I just don't think in theatre you come across characters like this. It was liberating to do—I mean, it was really energizing—and I'm just thrilled to be back in New York again, doing theatre." Of late, Lange has been knocking off The Big Ones of American Theatre—Blanche, Amanda and Mary Tyrone of Long Day's Journey Into Night—with more than a little help from her British producer, Bill Kenwright. "Hopefully, in a couple of years," she hopes, "we'll bring Long Day's Journey to New York. We only played it in London. We didn't get a chance to play it in New York." (Vanessa Redgrave did, in 2003, and got a Tony.)
Mary Tyrone can indeed wait a while, especially if you think Amanda Wingfield is rushing it a bit. (A radiant 55, Lange seems too young to be the mother of 35-year-old Christian Slater, but, if you do the math, that works out as well.) Meanwhile, there's always Miss Alma, another of Williams' broken belle-wringers (Summer and Smoke).
Slater, who made his theatre debut at age nine in The Music Man and understudied the young Copperfield on Broadway, has lately been winning Broadway parts with his movie box-office clout, handily outshining the actors he replaced: He followed Robert Sella, now of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, into Side Man, and now he has taken over for Dallas Roberts at the eleventh hour in Menagerie. "This play is about chemistry, and I think that played a crucial part," he offered by way of an explanation.
Plus, he does have a history with Lange—well, maybe "history" is too strong a word: "We worked together briefly on a little movie called Masked and Anonymous a couple of years ago. I only worked on it for two days. It was a Bob Dylan bizarre thing, and I really don't think that any of us quite understood it, but it was Bob Dylan so we all said, `Sure.'"
He rose quickly to the bait of Tom Wingfield in a first-class Broadway revival. "There wasn't a lot of time to think about it," Slater admitted. "I had to make a quick decision, but it was an easy decision to make. Then, I really started to look at how many lines it was, and I felt a little anxiety and fear, but I just took each piece one at a time and did the best I could. I'm still discovering, and uncovering, this character. The interesting thing about this play is that the more you do it and live it the more it sneaks up on you and catches you by surprise. That's one of the elements that I'm really enjoying about it."
Like Lange, Sarah Paulson only plays the Barrymore. Actually, it's her Broadway bow. She only understudied there in The Sisters Rosensweig, and she arrived looking beautiful despite the debut shakes. Direct quote: "I was nervous, really nervous. I was really nervous. It made me nervous. I get nervous." And you get the message: she was nervous.
Not that it showed, however. She played the role of the crippled Laura with assurance, spine and unexpected laughs. All that made the role more than a wilting wallflower.
The laughs, gently nudged from the character's social awkwardness, were director David Leveaux's notion. "He was a great comedic writer, Williams. I think it's necessary to release some of those laughs because, if you don't, then you're being very solemn with a piece that wasn't written like that. And I don't think The Glass Menagerie is suffused in melancholy. I don't think solemnity is the same thing as death—so risking some laughter seemed very much important. And I think, in the end, this makes the play a little bit more cruel, which is what he meant. He said The Glass Menagerie was his most brutal play."
The British director brings a lot to the table—but not the table itself around which Amanda goads Laura into making desperate chit-chat with The Gentleman Caller her brother Tom brought home from work. This is minimalist theatre—and more is missing.
I was not one of the endless millions who saw Laurette Taylor's triumphant work in the original 1944 production, but word has filtered back that her supreme moment was a telephone monologue (one of two) in which she frantically hustles subscriptions to "The Homemaker's Companion," banging the drum loudly for Bessie Mae Hopper's new serial which "critics already compare to `Gone With the Wind.'" Leveaux—and you gotta give the guy points for audacity—elects to have Lange deliver the speech off-stage and unseen.
"It was something that, during rehearsal, we just discovered," he explained. "Each of those phone calls is an increasingly urgent attempt to pull together some money in a world which is falling apart. To us, it seemed having the memory of the mother's voice coming from another place was a more eloquent way to do that than just show her again."
Josh Lucas is also making his Broadway debut, as the object of Laura's repressed affections. "I'm having a blast," he said. "It's absolutely fun, full of life, joyous—this poem that Tennessee Williams wrote about his mother and his sister. I just love doing it."
Lucas took time off from a lucrative film career to do Broadway, but he claims to have no regrets. Plus, he made sure he had a couple of features in the can ready to spring on the public this year: "Stealth, a big action movie with Jamie Foxx and Sam Shepard, and Glory Road, a basketball movie for producer Jerry Bruckheimer with Jon Voight."
Shepard, a reclusive Pulitzer Prize playwright who hides out in the limelight, and Lange have been a couple since co-starring in the film, Frances, in 1982. Was there a connection for Lucas because he co-starred with both? Yes: "They're brilliant talents, and you follow brilliant talent whenever you can. Otherwise, it's just pure coincidence."
Most unexpected celebs at the post-play bash were glamorous Famke Janssen, cooling her high heel profitably between X-Men 2 and X-Men 3 (she's a huge Jessica Lange fan: "You name it, Tootsie, Frances, Blue Sky . . . " ), and Adam Duritz, the Counting Crows lead singer and recent Oscar nominee (for Best Song: "Accidentally in Love" from Shrek 2). He wore his usual dreadlocks a la Lilly Dashe, and one woman wanted him to remove his "hat."
"My last opening was Mary-Louise Parker's play, Reckless," the rocker recalled, "but I try and see everything that I can. I love theatre. I wanted to see The Glass Menagerie because it's one of those five or ten best American plays. I was most curious to see it. I thought it was great. I'd never seen anyone get so much humor out of the play before."
The Shuberts' Gerald Schoenfeld gave a welcoming kiss to the late arriving (from Steel Magnolias) Christine Ebersole, who lent the proper Southern scent to the proceedings. (Maybe the whole cast of Moonlight and Magnolias would have been at home there, too.) Cherry Jones, who'll likely be squaring off with Lange for the Best Actress Tony, bopped by, too, after her 90 minutes of major-league Doubt and was regaling agent David Kalodner with a report on the evening's on-stage donnybrook with Brian F. O'Bryne: "I must have been doing something right because a particular line that he is often ferocious on, tonight he softened it to a choir-boy purr. I thought, `Oh, great! My job's hard enough without you having them think you're an innocent choir boy.' But I knew I had gotten him or he wouldn't feel he had to soften it. He can play the audience that way. I can't."
Another agent, Matthew Sullivan, was singing the praises of Leslie Kritzler (Funny Girl at the Paper Mill Playhouse a few years ago and, presumably, a client). "She went on as Tracy tonight in Hairspray. It was exciting," even if he said so himself. Hairspray's Tony-winning tunesmiths, Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman, opted for Menagerie.
Producer Kenwright closed a deal during previews for a major West End revival of Cabaret. It will follow Death of a Salesman into the Lyric, helmed by the hot-shot director of the moment, Rufus Norris, who has three hits on the West End right now, including Festen, which Kenwright plans to bring over next season and redo with an American cast. He also plans to import Primo, Sir Antony Sher's big hit at the National.
"I have to tell you there's nothing taxing about producing," Kenwright said, obviously feeling relief from the usual grip of first-night stress. "It's a privilege to produce. Digging a manhole in the road and putting in the filling—now, that's stress. If you don't get up and thank God every day of your life when you're in the theatre, you should get out of it."