As the second half of "The Glass Menagerie" gets under way and the Mother greeting the Gentleman Caller with airy charm, summons up romanticized memories of her girlhood and an endless string of beaus, it suddenly becomes apparent what has drawn Jessica Tandy to this role. Magically and enchantingly, the Mother is transfigured to become, uncannily and with the years swept away, the reflected image of Blanche DuBois, the part Tandy created in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" in a performance yet to be equaled.
Up to then, the Williams revival that opened last night at the O'Neill has been more or less dragging along under John Dexter's sluggish, even lifeless, direction. And Tandy, looking exceptionally pretty, has been laboring to bring the evening fitfully to life, her voice scratchy at times now but still expressive. Amanda Plummer, as the gimpy Daughter, has shown us at least a measure of the girl's fragile appeal, and Bruce Davison, as the Son and also the narrator, has at least offered an engaging presence. But it is mostly the Mother's phoned attempts to have friends renew lapsing magazine subscriptions, especially the second such call, that brighten our spirits. Of course, the brief scenes are practically foolproof, but Tandy performs them with flair.
In the second half, devoted almost entirely to the Gentleman Caller's visit and slightly awkward leavetaking, we are doubly rewarded. For along with that of the now-radiant star, we are given an exceptionally fine performance by John Heard as the G.C. (Oh, let's pass by the playwright's simple designations and call them by their rightful names: Amanda Wingfield, her daughter, Laura, son, Tom, and the visiting Jim O'Connor.)
It's really a pity that this tender play, which must be treated with the same care Laura devotes to her collection of tiny glass animals and which remains dearer to many than the author's second and greatest success, "A Streetcar Named Desire," should not have lived up to its promise this time out. Dexter's heavyhanded staging - there is almost no pulse to the first half - is very neatly wholly to blame.
Heard is outstanding, and in the candlelight moment which must become an eternity for Laura, his natural, forthright and yet versatile playing succeeds in drawing out to some degree the otherwise merely muted, and never in the least ethereal, account of Laura by Plummer.
Ming Cho Lee's large set, with its translucent surrounding and surmounting panels is, in its attempt to enclose the play in a dreamlike atmosphere with the help of Andy Phillips' rather eerie lighting, a bit overpowering for this work. And Patricia Zipprodt's costumes, though perfectly apt at times (as in the flowered chiffon Tandy swirls about in during her flirtatious greeting of Heard) are ill-considered in the case of Tom's immaculate designer pea jacket (he has been in the Merchant Marines for 10 years or more, for heaven's sake) and also in that of the badly fitting coat Tandy dons in the first half.
It's a lovely play, but no cinch and never has been since an aging but beautifully attuned Eddie Dowling (as Tom) and an inspired Laurette Taylor playing Mother to an affecting Julie Haydon, first brought it to glowing life. Those special moments with Tandy are entrancing, but she can't carry it alone, or even with Heard's gallant support. Williams' magic must infuse the entire evening.
When does a play become a classic rather than merely a revival? One test could be at that point when miraculously it appears full of quotations - rather like Hamlet.
Looking at the beautifully mounted production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, which has opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, replete with the gleaming presences of Jessica Tandy and Amanda Plummer, the play did seem to take on the dimensions of a classic.
And, yes, the quotations were there. Williams himself called it "a memory play," and now it is locked into the memory not only of the playwright but also his audience.
Tiny phrases reverberate on the consciousness. We listen once more to the tale of the wanderlusting father who was "a telephone man who fell in love with long distances."
(And here we note that the director, John Dexter, has adroitly improved the phrase, making it "in love with long distance.") So the play continues, an enchanted garden of remembrances.
The story is simplicity itself. A still youngish man enters and tells us he is going to share the hidden recesses of his youth - a youngster growing up in St. Louis, a few years before World War II. His name is Tom.
He lives in a tenement with his mother, Amanda, and his sister, Laura, two years older than himself and crippled. And, as he puts it later, "strange." By day he works in a warehouse, but many of his nights are spent at the movies, lost in the vicarious adventures of Hollywood.
The mother, and the whole family, live in a state of genteel but chronic poverty. The mother, either once a Southern belle or, at least, a lady with such illusions, is fighting for her children, particularly the shy and crippled Laura.
Laura must be married off. But she meets no one. When Amanda was young her heart was besieged by "gentleman callers" but no gentlemen call on Laura.
At last Tom is prevailed upon to bring a workmate home. It turns out to be Jim, a high school hero for whom once Laura had an unnoticed crush. The preparations for the visit are made. A new lamp, new curtains, polished silver.
But Jim is engaged to be married. Laura is left with her class collection of tiny animals, her plaything, her interest, her glass menagerie. And Tom - well, Tom escapes to a jungle of cities.
It sounds a sentimental play, doesn't it? And potentially it was. And it is scarcely helped by Williams' somewhat mawkish, overblown poetry.
The opening monologue is wickedly over-written. Listen to this: "I reverse [time] to that quaint period, the '30s, when the huge middle class of America was metriculating in a school for the blind." And it sometimes gets worse.
But what saves the play for immortality is Williams' resonant sense of place and period. His ear and heart for people, and his marvelously astringent humor. When the going gets sticky, a brash joke is always at hand to cut through the goo. He also understood that poignancy was the tragedy of little people.
This new production is opaquely eloquent and as bewitching as the play itself. It has all the right overtones and grace-notes, and the characters loom out from the nostalgic mists in perfectly perceived detail.
Dexter has been very fair to the play - he has even followed the playwright's unaccountable request, in his stage directions, for subtitles, as it were, displayed over the set, announcing the action.
Even the loyal Dexter does, however, balk at the projected images, also requested, of blue roses and a football hero.
But Dexter is a deal more than merely conscientious. His great skills as a director have always been towards formal structure, but in letting the playwright speak for himself.
It is brilliantly self-effacing. And here he's nobly helped by the settings of Ming Cho Lee (a transparent dream of a tenement), the costumes by Patricia Zipprodt and the lighting by Andy Philips.
Also - often tremulously lovely - the acting, exquisitely poised between what Williams suggested was "truth and illusion." The keys to the play are hope and escape...the forlorn but fervent hope and the fire escape, the symbolism of which Williams noted.
Dexter turns these keys with a clicking smoothness, and the actors live their roles to the moment. The men are most easily discussed, although both are excellent.
The streak of cruelty in Tom - often ignored - that comes from the egoism of the artist, is deftly brought out by Bruce Davidson, and John Heard is bluffly and surprisingly touching as the sensible ambitious gentleman caller.
Yet, of course, it is fundamentally a duet for women. Even when one of them is not on stage, her presence needs to be felt. Mother and daughter, Miss Tandy and Miss Plummer are superb.
Neither actress tries to whitewash or rose-scent her character. Miss Tandy's Amanda is naggingly loquacious, a foolish snob and with her thin, tight lips and defensive confidence, she's not particularly pleasant.
But she is a battler - not even a survivor, just a battler. And Miss Tandy conveys a courage and humor that first excuses Amanda's pitiful little shams, and then ennobles them.
Miss Plummer, corrosively shy, heart-tied and gauche in spirit, shows us a girl torn between what she could give and what she's given.
Both Miss Tandy, in her experience, and Miss Plummer, in her innocence, are giving performances blazing with inner fires.
I started by talking about classics. Let me end there. A classic is timeless, speaking to the universal spirit of generations. The Glass Menagerie is timeless and universal. And it may never be better presented. Do not miss it.
The new Broadway revival of ''The Glass Menagerie'' leaves much to be desired, but that fact doesn't diminish the largest aspect of the event. The spirits of Tennessee Williams and Jessica Tandy have been reunited for the first time in a generation, and their partnership, now as in legend, is one of the most fundamental in the history of the American theater. Perhaps some theatergoers will want to hold out for a better ''Glass Menagerie'' than the one at the O'Neill Theater, and no doubt it will eventually arrive. But you pass up Miss Tandy's Amanda Wingfield only at your own peril: You may turn around one day to discover that, in Mr. Williams's phrase, the past has turned into everlasting regret.
Along with ''Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' ''The Glass Menagerie'' is in a class apart among autobiographical American plays. ''The play is memory,'' says Tom, Mr. Williams's alter ego and narrator - and so it is. What lifts this work above so many other family living-room dramas is its author's insistence on refracting the past through a complex and vulnerable sensibility: A remembered reality is rearranged to express the music, both sweet and discordant, of a young poet's soul. It is Miss Tandy's ability to ascend to that same realm - to give us not just the simple truth, but ''truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion'' - that makes her performance a piece of music that lingers in our minds as persistently as Amanda lingered in the author's.
The simple truth of Amanda is plain enough. A woman who has long since been deserted by both her husband and her genteel Southern youth, she lives in shabby circumstances in Depression-era St. Louis; she fights incessantly for her children's happiness even as she nearly smothers them to death. But if that were the sum of Amanda, Mr. Williams wouldn't have written about her. Within the exasperating nag, there is still the coquettish plantation belle. Within the woman battered on all sides by the painfulness of existence, there is still the indomitable fighter who clings to her faith in ''the superior things of the mind and the spirit.''
Miss Tandy, trim and in blond curls, wraps all these Amandas together in a portrayal of prismatic translucence. One second she is hectoring her son for his selfishness in a raspy Southern drawl, then she is all maternal good will, quietly tightening a muffler around Tom's neck. A second after that, she is a calculating flirt, cajoling the young man into finding his sister, Laura, a gentleman caller. When Tom takes the bait, she skips buoyantly about her drab apartment, clapping her hands in childish delight.
As always with this actress, delicate precision is all. When Amanda tells her daughter to aspire to ''charm'' and then remembers that charm was also her husband's fatal attribute, the word descends from a cheery highnote to a death rattle in the same sentence. When Amanda trudges home defeated by the discovery that Laura has abandoned business college, Miss Tandy enters in a moth-eaten cloth coat, looking aged and weary; then, by the mere dignity with which she removes her gloves, she reasserts the pride and determination of a woman who perseveres in the face of any defeat. Later on, while reminiscing about her marriage to her son, the actress clasps her arms to her chest on the line, ''There are so many things in my heart I cannot describe to you.'' Her eyes tell us those indescribable things, and one of them is the unmistakable red-hot fever of sexual passion.
Miss Tandy brings one other strong asset to this role - beauty. When she puts on her yellow-linen cotillion dress to greet Laura's gentleman caller, there is nothing campy or self-parodistic about the mother's retreat to her vanished past. Sashaying about the room with a bouquet of jonquils in her hand, the actress just turns back the clock as magically as she did in ''Foxfire.'' Yet when disappointment sets in afterward, the same woman in the same dress withers like a leaf: the glow is gone, and we're left with a ghost floating through the lurid red shadows cast by the Paradise dance hall next door.
Unlike so many Amandas, Miss Tandy doesn't refrain from making the audience despise her - and that's how it must be, if we're to believe that she will ultimately drive her son, like her husband, out the door forever. This Amanda is tough, and even her most comic badgerings leave a bitter aftertaste. John Dexter, the British director of this production, follows the same severe tack in the rest of the revival - even to the point of using some of the distancing, slide-projected title cards that Mr. Williams calls for in the published text (but are rarely seen in performance).
Though the notion of fighting against a maudlin ''Glass Menagerie'' is laudable, the execution has gone astray. The exemplary designer Ming Cho Lee has created a set that appropriately serves the abstraction of memory rather than kitchen-sink reality, but it is too big, too contemporary and too icy in its austere high-tech design. Even Andy Phillips's evocative, pointillist lighting can't always prevent it from combatting the play's intimacy.
The supporting cast, though populated by accomplished actors, is frequently playing at a routine level. Though she works hard, Amanda Plummer is miscast as Laura: as you'd expect, she captures the pathological shyness of a young woman who lives in a fantasy world of glass figurines, but a gleaming smile alone can't convey the inner radiance that is waiting to be unlocked; we just don't believe that she would haunt her brother for the rest of his life. Bruce Davison's Tom has a Williamsesque accent that comes (in the narration) and goes (in the scenes proper) - and the performance is in and out too. A cagey opponent for Miss Tandy in their fights, the actor gives an exaggeratedly actorish delineation of a dreamy poet battling for salvation.
John Heard comes off much better as the Gentleman Caller: He mines the low-key generosity of the man, thereby keeping total disaster at bay in his long scene with the almost resolutely ungiving Miss Plummer. But his flights of Dale Carnegie-style self-boosterism are accompanied by artificial and anachronistic gestures - as if he and Mr. Dexter were guessing blindly at the manners of a bygone American prototype.
That the play is often absorbing and affecting, if imbalanced, in spite of these considerable drawbacks is a testament to the enduring pull of the writing and to the flame of Miss Tandy. The wrong notes are there to be heard, but so is the voice of our cherished, departed poet, pouring directly out of one of the few incandescent theater artists he has left behind.