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There’s a fine production of The Glass Menagerie out at Round House this month, and if the delicious prospect of Tana Hicken as Amanda Wingfield isn’t enough to inspire a trip to the suburbs, consider this: Every mile you drive toward Silver Spring is another mile you’re putting between yourself and The Boys in the Band. And trust me, you’ll want some distance.

It’s not just that Mart Crowley’s legendarily difficult play is a painfully dated period piece—though that it is, with its bitter, self-hating queens and their constant camping about subjects from Maria Montez and midnight cowboys to mothers who love too much. It’s that the American Century Theater, brave Arlington-based champion of problematic scripts, has brought to its staging all the broad bad taste usually reserved for public-access cable soap operas.

A charitable observer might venture to guess that director John Moran, who seems to believe quite passionately that Boys is a revealing document of its time, simply hasn’t noticed that the play’s weight falls squarely on the character of Michael, the birthday-party host and psychological terrorist whose near-total crackup brings down the Act 2 curtain. This is one possible explanation, anyway, for the stiff and wholly uncharismatic performance of lead actor John Judy, who summons the same strange rictus to communicate everything from simple sarcasm to outright viciousness, and whose general performance style could make a mime’s posturings seem comparatively reserved.

But if Crowley mines Michael’s self-laceration for what little emotional oomph the play carries, The Boys in the Band is, in point of fact, an ensemble piece, full of colorfully juicy parts for the eight supporting stereotypes who turn up in Michael’s apartment for the festivities. Each of the other assembled actors works earnestly to be amusing or tragic or bitter, which is one of the other troubles with the production: Nothing that transpires on the Gunston Arts Center stage ever looks like anything but sheer skull-pounding work. Convincing naturalism? Not here.

Certainly not in the two-level set, by someone called Myke, whose vision of the late ’60s extends to posters of the Beatles and Marilyn—and an all-in-one stereo deck that almost certainly couldn’t have been manufactured until well into the ’70s. At least the mixers on the downstage bar come in glass rather than plastic bottles. (Their labels, though, are clearly ’90s vintage; haven’t the mononymic Myke and his/her properties manager ever heard of a soda siphon?)

The inattention to detail extends to the semiotics of costuming—a hunky cowboy hustler, hired as a gift for the birthday boy, comes with a note suggesting that he’s sexually dominant but carries a crisp red bandanna in the back right pocket of his jeans, which is nothing if not a set of mixed signals. It’s a fair bet, too, that the vicuna sweater two characters make such a fuss about is your basic cotton chenille, and it’s absolutely certain that both actors violently mispronounce “vicuna.” Not once, but twice.

All this would be easier to take if The Boys in the Band were a less troublesome script, but surely the only reason to produce it these days is as a showcase for a cast and crew talented enough to make it work in spite of itself. The American Century Theater’s mission is precisely to take on this kind of play, I know, but it may be that the company’s reliably smart artistic director, Jack Marshall, needs to make a policy of staging the most troublesome of them himself.

There’s been talk about how Round House’s production of Glass Menagerie makes a tired old play breathe again, and that’s probably true enough. But what those of us who get paid to watch plays may be too ready to forget—I’ve been whining lately about how I never need to see another Romeo and Juliet—is that these plays are always new to a chunk of the audience. And Round House’s delicate treatment of this particular theatrical artifact makes for a first encounter as auspicious as anyone could hope for.

Menagerie is Tennessee Williams at his leanest, before the purple crept into his prose poetry, and Donald Hicken directs it with a sense of lyricism that complements the simple, beautiful rhythms of the text. The production is designed with a relaxed, comfortable air of faded elegance that’s absolutely faithful to Williams’ intentions, and the cast is all but ideal.

At its head is the estimable Tana Hicken, who makes the aging Southern coquette, Amanda Wingfield, more than the outsized grotesque she could easily become. The setting is Depression-era St. Louis, and it’s the character’s suffocating, domineering concern for the future of her two grown children that fuels the play’s conflict.

Amanda’s frantic micromanaging hobbles her daughter’s emotional development as much as does the mild lameness that makes the girl so self-conscious, and it’s that same nagging, relentless anxiety about the family’s future that eventually drives her son (the narrator and stand-in for the playwright) to abandon the women who depend on his income to survive. Hicken’s Amanda is tightly wound, yes, and prone to believe that she can bring things right if only she manipulates them carefully enough; the charm of the performance is that there’s enough girlish energy underneath the calculation to make you think maybe she’s right—or was, at least, not so long ago.

Her performance is matched, if not bettered, by Maia DeSanti’s sad, sweet Laura, the unwilling token in Amanda’s endless game of beat the odds, and Christopher Lane’s decent, diffident “gentleman caller,” Jim, who may offer a way out. He romances her gently in that long second-act scene, drawing her just far enough out of her shell to guarantee that she and we will be equally devastated when he confesses he can’t follow through. Gracefully staged and beautifully performed, the sequence is a masterpiece of heartbreaking understatement.

If, once or twice, Donald Hicken’s direction errs on the side of obviousness, drawing attention with self-conscious tricks of lighting to moments that don’t really need underscoring, it doesn’t ever get in the way. And it’s at least an imaginative and poetic sort of excess—which, if excess there’s going to be, is very much the right sort for a playwright who could never do without a little himself. CP