Katharine Houghton, Loren Dunn, and Robert Eli
in The Pretty Trap
(© Ben Hider)
Katharine Houghton, Loren Dunn, and Robert Eli
in The Pretty Trap
(© Ben Hider)
Theatergoers get the rare chance to see an undisputed masterwork as a work-in-progress with Cause Célèbre's production of Tennessee Williams' The Pretty Trap, now playing at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row. The brief one-act offers a loving, sepia-toned, and surprisingly comedic, portrait of the Wingfield family, so familiar from the playwright's later, bittersweet classic The Glass Menagerie.

On some levels, the piece is a mere squib from a young author still finding his voice (there are only hints of the gorgeous lyricism that would become Williams' hallmark); yet, thanks to director Antony Marsellis' solidly staged production and a delightful performance from Katharine Houghton as the Wingfield matriarch Amanda, there's also something that is undeniably charming about the piece.

The Pretty Trap centers on the dinner that Amanda hosts for her son Tom (an understated Loren Dunn) and his co-worker, Jim (Robert Eli), "The Gentleman Caller" whom Amanda hopes will become a beau for her introverted daughter Laura (Nisi Sturgis). Many of the details -- and even some of the dialogue -- will be familiar to anyone who's encountered Menagerie, but there are significant differences. For instance, Laura does not suffer from any handicap in The Pretty Trap and Tom, so bitter about his home life in the later play, seems merely bemused by his mother here.

And then, there's Amanda, the faded Southern belle whom audiences have come to know as a kind of maternal harridan. In Trap, she's harsh, unbecomingly flirtatious, and speaks candidly about her bitterness over what she has had to do to raise two children on her own, but there's a comic gloss to it all. In fact, she's even willing to joke -- albeit sarcastically -- about the fact that Laura calls her a "witch."

The affection with which Williams portrays Amanda is only amplified in Houghton's breezy performance. The actress revels in the character's loving gregariousness, making her seem like a middle-aged woman who's teetering on the verge of dottiness. Houghton does sometimes sound darker tones, particularly when barking commands to Laura, who is initially unwilling to join her mother, brother and guest in the family's main room (rendered as a cozy, knickknack-filled home by scenic designer Ray Klausen).

Sturgis and Eli, who share a remarkable chemistry, ably propel the piece when their characters are center stage. She beautifully traverses Laura's journey from painfully shy wallflower to almost outgoing young woman as Laura slowly learns she can share confidences with Jim. And Laura's ease with him is understandable given Eli's turn, which is simply a model of easygoing affability.

Even more than in The Glass Menagerie, this is a couple for whom audiences find themselves rooting, particularly given some unexpected turns in their brief courtship. And while The Pretty Trap may not carry the same emotional weight of the play into which it evolves, theatergoers will find that it thoroughly satisfies.