Fifty-two years and a couple hundred pounds ago, Marlon Brando electrified Broadway audiences with his snarling, animalistic portrayal of the bellowing lout in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. In fact, Brando's riveting turn as Stanley Kowalski spawned generations of imitators who wrongly believed that mumbling, scratching and raw emoting were hallmarks of every great performance instead of merely mannerisms used by a great actor to illuminate a specific role.
Once Brando started becoming a grotesque caricature of himself, though, he instantly became a high-profile target for satirists who famously out-Marloned Marlon. Which is probably why the more amusing episodes in The Glass Mendacity revolve around the antics of the actor impersonating Stanley. Unlike some of the characters in Maureen Morley and Tom Willmorth's sendup, which parodies a trio of classic Williams plays, Stanley's behavioral traits have been lampooned more frequently by stand-up and sketch comics and are therefore recognizable to most audience members. Getting a handle on the rest of the humor -- as well as the realigned relationships -- requires a greater knowledge of Streetcar, The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but most of the characters in the Industrial Arts Theatre's production are eventually fleshed out to the point that theatergoers can appreciate their comic quirks and kinks (in every sense of the word).
In Morley and Willmorth's fractured version, Blanche (Zoe Lee), the repressed and flighty ditzoid in Streetcar, is now married to her former brother-in-law and arch-enemy, Stanley (Henry Clinton Szychowski), which makes them both related to Big Daddy DuBois (James Frost). He's the owner of the Southern plantation that everyone wants to inherit in Cat and, conveniently here, the same homestead that Blanche waxes nostalgic about in Streetcar. Big Daddy has also dumped Big Mama and taken up with the nymphomaniacally inclined Amanda (Andrea Gurner), the meddling mother of Laura (Kellie Rae Alexander), the crippled young girl who collects glass animals in Menagerie. Rounding out the collection of misfits are Big Daddy's closeted son, Brick (portrayed by a costumed mannequin), his sexually frustrated wife, Maggie the Cat (Rosa Maria Chavez), and a seemingly benign lawyer named Mitch O'Conner (played by Gregory M. Ellett and David Loda on alternating nights), who is an amalgam of three different characters: In addition to vaguely resembling the poker-playing Mitch from Streetcar, he's also the narrator, Tom, and gentleman caller, Jim, from Menagerie.
The Glass Mendacity, presented by the Industrial Arts Theatre through October 2 at the Denver Civic Theater, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 303-595-3821
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Although the performers have little trouble delivering zingers like "The gentleman caller with the longest nightcrawler got to take me to the cotillion" and "My life is emptier than a Mormon wet bar," director Roger Winn isn't always effective in orchestrating the comic deflation of Williams's fabled neurotics. A few sluggishly realistic scenes derail the play's near-farcical momentum, and some characters seem more naturalistic in behavior than comically paranormal. For the most part, though, the production plumbs the humorously dysfunctional depths of a cadre of nutcases who all owe their dramaturgical parentage to a singular sexual-identity-obsessed writer.
Szychowski devilishly distorts Stanley's behavioral aberrations as well as Brando's "method" eccentricities. With his stooped posture, pronounced lisp and volcanic displays of feeling, he dutifully skewers Brando's to-his-knees wailing of "Stella!" and blusters his way through several brutish confrontations -- all with that vacant, trademark squint that Brando turned into a multi-million-dollar commodity. Even so, Szychowski might want to further suggest Stanley's sexual confusion (which is more like a family disease for these intermarried wackos). Rather than simply clutch one of Maggie's colored slips and then turn hesitatingly toward the bathroom door, for instance, Szychowski could flash us a look that lets us in on his character's J. Edgar Hoover-like urges -- and, in the process, earn a few more laughs.
So could Gurner, whose brief comments would be even funnier if the audience could see her visualizing the scores of fedora-clad gentlemen callers lining up outside her front door, nightcrawlers in hand -- a mass presence that, she demurely says, required an emergency delivery of Porta Pottis. And when Laura's ice-cube animals melt near play's end (her "accidental" wrist abrasion from a unicorn's spike hastened her mother's decision to remove glass objects from the household), Alexander could crumble to the industrial-strength carpet and beat it with grand-operatic intensity instead of mere Chekhovian heartache. In fact, each of the actors would benefit from ratcheting up their character's more twisted impulses, which Winn and company will likely do as the run progresses. After all, these might be the tenderly poetic creations of a sensitive and vulnerable playwright, but as the character of Mitch observes (with Williamesque flair), it's about time we're permitted to take a look "through the tissue paper of deceit to the steel fondue pot of truth."