Ever wish The Glass Menagerie ended with a few extra yuks just for kicks? If so, The Pretty Trap, a shorter, earlier version of Williams’ masterpiece should appeal.
Credit is due to Cause Celebre, a New York-based company that is presenting the New York debut of this minor Williams curiosity, which, like Menagerie, focuses mainly on Wingfield family matriarch Amanda, her fragile daughter Laura, her son Tom, and Jim, a gentleman caller Tom brings home to introduce to his sister (who, in this version, has no perceptible physical ailments). The material represented is essentially what’s included in the sixth and seventh scenes of The Glass Menagerie – the arrival of Jim and Laura’s subsequent interactions. Where Menagerie ends in tragic dissonance, however, The Pretty Trap ends with hollow, punchy pronouncements.
The Pretty Trap represents, for Williams enthusiasts, a chance to observe the playwright’s early fascinations. Written between 1943 and 1944, when, at the time, it was described as “derived from a longer work in progress, The Gentleman Caller” (a screenplay envisioned for Ethel Barrymore and Judy Garland that went unproduced), this fairly short piece demonstrates the drastic, productive changes made to the script before The Glass Menagerie‘s 1944 Chicago premiere, particularly the addition of Tom’s metatheatrical framing dialogue, which went on to make the piece sadder and stronger – and, as a result, truer to life.
As presented here, The Pretty Trap is funny and likable enough. Film actress Katharine Houghton (best known for her role in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and as Katharine Hepburn’s niece) acquits herself well as matriarch Amanda. As in The Glass Menagerie, Amanda’s chirpy chatter dominates the family’s living quarters. The play makes much of the displaced nature of her family, highlighting the geographical and sociological differences between Jim, a Northerner, and the Wingfields.
Jim, who comes to visit the Wingfields, describes Amanda’s children as “dreamy types,” setting up the difference between his own more practical, motivated leanings. “The dreamy type in a girl is very attractive,” Jim tells Laura, and, in true comic fashion, the two young lovebirds end in bliss. This dichotomy between dreams and personal drive fuels this shorter version, which lacks the bite of its successor but nonetheless contains bursts of lovely writing. Loren Dunn, as a significantly less angsty Tom, and Robert Eli as Jim, acquit themselves here, but Nisi Sturgis is the cast’s highlight, imbuing Laura with a subtle, relatable terror that melts, slowly, into acquiescence (Sturgis would do just fine in The Glass Menagerie in the same role).
For those seeking a satisfying night at the theatre, The Pretty Trap is likely to seem slight. For diehard Tennessee Williams and Menagerie fans, the production does represent a rare chance to see Williams’ thought processes in action. If the piece is less than essential viewing, this production, helmed by director Antony Marsellis, who allows the piece to play out free of impediments, is perfectly adequate and, occasionally, above average.