The brilliance of playwright/performer Ryan Landry lies in his unique ability to marry outrageous parody with the most serious topics. Although "The Glass Menagerie," Tennessee Williams's classic look at broken dreams, doesn't seem quite right as material for satire, Landry's twisted take, "The Plexiglass Menagerie," succeeds whenever attention turns to the troubled Laura, played with remarkable versatility by Larry Coen.
In "The Plexiglass Menagerie," now playing at Theater Machine, the action has been moved to post-Katrina New Orleans, where the Wingfield family is living in a FEMA trailer down on Desolation Avenue in the lower Ninth Ward. Tom Wingfield (the wonderful Bill Hough) is remembering his days with his mother Amanda (Landry) and his sister Laura, whose menagerie of glass animals has already been broken. Tom is forced to do work he hates on the demolition detail, "pushing aside another dream," and Laura has worked briefly as a makeup artist in the city morgue.
Although the original play focused as much on the overbearing Amanda and the frustrated Tom, here Landry -- no slouch as an actor -- steps back and gives Coen room to take over the stage, and it's impossible to look anywhere else. In this version, Laura has a bigger problem than shyness and a gimpy leg. In Coen's phenomenal hands, Laura takes on a new dimension as a girl driven to a kind of madness because of her mother's denial of who she really is. Watching Coen eat a piece of Wonder bread, which he finally transforms into a toy, is sidesplitting, and his dancing to "It's My Party" is wild. At the same time, Coen, dressed in shapeless shifts and a stringy blonde wig, wears expressions filled with a girlish bewilderment, a confusion over a truth that's becoming disturbingly clear , and a longing to escape reality in any way possible. The emphasis on Laura gives the story a fresh poignancy (OK, in the midst of a fair amount of potty humor), and her bittersweet triumph at the play's end makes her an unexpected heroine.
Landry has some fun with Amanda, turning her famed gentlemen callers into "Mr. Peanut," "Mr. Winchester," and "Mr. Donut" (Dunkin to his friends) and changing her telemarketing efforts into selling "mail-order firearms to the widows in the neighborhood." But his script is overwhelmed by the opportunities a ravaged New Orleans offers. It veers off course with subplots that have Tom joining a revolutionary group bent on assassinating the president during Mardi Gras, and a real estate agent (Afrodite, looking good even when he's not in drag) trying to undercut the value of the Wingfields' property. Characters rail against the government's abandonment of the city in uncharacteristically heavy-handed political diatribes, when the FEMA trailer set pieces (check out where the Wingfields wash their dishes) say it all much more powerfully.
Despite the efforts of director James P. Byrne to hold everything together, "The Plexiglass Menagerie" overreaches in trying to poke vicious fun at the government and give voice to the deluded and downtrodden. But Coen's performance as Laura gives this production a sparkle more beautiful than any glass figurine.