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A CurtainUp Review
The Pretty Trap

I wouldn't have had you if I hadn't married that telephone man in love with long distance. —Amanda
The Pretty Trap
Katharine Houghton and Robert Eli
(Photo: Ben Hider)
Laura is shy but is not lame. Her mother Amanda is "a perennial Southern belle, " but also as practical as she is pragmatic. Laura's brother Tom is an irresponsible, irrepressible dreamer, but not the point of view character. And Jim, the gentleman caller is not otherwise engaged to be married but rather genuinely interested in reaching out romantically to an unexpectedly receptive Laura. These are but some of the deviations in the characters that are famously and more familiarly known to us in Tennessee Williams's masterful memory play The Glass Menagerie.

More importantly, there is the prospect of a happy ending in The Pretty Trap, the earlier one-act version of the play that would become the award-winning The Glass Menagerie. A reading of this almost forgotten one-act play was given in 2005 by Cause Célèbre with Kathleen Turner as Amanda. It has been given a fully-staged New York production by the same company. A collector's curio at best, it is performed by a competent cast led by a very fine Katharine Houghton in the role of Amanda. This production, however, is also the recipient of some egregiously inattentive direction by Antony Marsellis both in staging and in his failure to help the actors make more believable emotion transitions during the course of the play.

When the quite respectable 1950 film version of Williams's The Glass Menagerie was released, audiences not familiar with the acclaimed 1944 play were generally inclined to be satisfied with its sentimental upbeat ending. Critics, however, were less eager to embrace the alteration to the largely autobiographical play that had catapulted its author to fame.

Williams, who had himself not only considered and reconsidered different possible endings, wrote The Pretty Trap during the same time period when he was completing a screenplay, The Gentleman Caller. That never put into production would eventually become the full-lengthThe Glass Menagerie, itself a reworking of his short story "Portrait of a Girl in Glass."

Houghton, an actress most famously known for her role as Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn's daughter and Sidney Poitier's fiancé in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, plays Amanda with an invigorating sense of authority. In the role once played by her aunt Katherine Hepburn in a 1973 TV adaptation, she has a keen grasp on Amanda's proclivity for incessant chatter and her almost shamelessly coquettish behavior.

The play's title refers to Amanda's oft-repeated remark that "girls are a trap, a pretty trap," as it also affords us a portrait of her as a survivor and a realist. When she unapologetically commands an unflustered Jim to tell her his hopes and dreams, she does it in a manner that is as disarming as it is a well calculated.

The gentleman-caller scene that comprises the entirety of The Pretty Trap is notable for the way a mutual attraction, develops between Laura and Jim. In this version, they have no back story or history. Notable is the determined and firmly manipulative hand that Amanda has in securing a future for the grievously timid Laura.

Tom is rather insignificant in this version. His only purpose is to bring Jim, his friend and co-worker in the factory, to his home on Maple Street, St. Louis where he lives with his ditsy, overbearing mother and painfully withdrawn sister. We only get an inkling of the pivotal character he will become in Loren Dunn's otherwise commendable performance.

As Jim, Robert Eli is afforded more of an opportunity to engage us as much as he does Laura (Nisi Sturgi) whose fascination with the good-looking caller grows exponentially after dancing tentatively with him to "Dardanella." Sturgi, whose pale blonde hair hangs loosely on her shoulders, is delicately pretty. But she is not nearly as fragile as the glass unicorn she brings into the room and entrusts to Jim's hands, hands that are better at guiding her in a dance and an eventual embrace. Laura's sudden trust in the charms of a virtual stranger almost suggests an early intimation of Blanche Dubois.

What appears to be more of a miracle than their rapt rapport with each other is that the old Victrola record player not only plays after the electricity has been turned off but doesn't need winding up. The scene at the dinning room table is particularly awkward with no practical concession made for it to make sense with Amanda, Laura, Jim and Tom compacted on one side leaving open an entire side of the table.

Subtitled by its author "A Comedy in One Act," The Pretty Trap will be of primary interest to those who devour and take delight in every morsel from Williams's pen. It is, unquestionably lighter in tone and temperament than anything in The Glass Menagerie, but there are aspects of it that are said to resonate more closely to Williams' original intentions. This decidedly lesser work suffers from comparison to the expanded play, but it survives as a potentially charming adjunct.

One more complaint: Considering the cost of a ticket at $66.50 and that the play is over in a little more than 50 minutes, it would have been nice and more generous if Cause Célèbre gave the audience another of Williamsís one-act plays to savor or, better still, as way of comparison, the Gentleman Caller scene as it is in The Glass Menagerie.

The Pretty Trap
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Antony Marsellis

Cast: Katharine Houghton (Amanda Wingfield), Loren Dunn (Tom Wingfield), Robert Eli (Gentleman Caller), Nisi Sturgis (Laura Wingfield)
Scenic Designer: Ray Klausen
Lighting and Sound: Bernie Dove
Costume: David Toser
Running Time: 50 minutes no intermission
Cause Célèbre atThe Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
(212) 239 - 6200
Tickets: $66.50 ($10.00 is tax deductible); premium seating $131.25 ($70.00 tax deductible)
Performances are staggered from 08/02/11 to 08/21/11 and plays in repertory with The Shoemaker
) From: 08/02/11
Opening: 08/03/11
Closing: 08/21/11
Review by Simon Saltzman and based on performance 08/02/11
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