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The Soul of the Gentleman Caller

Date: Sep 18, 2013


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Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles

In early drafts of Tennessee Williams' debut Broadway play The Glass Menagerie, he called the show The Gentleman Caller. You might assume, then, that the title role is also the lead. You'd be wrong. The Gentleman Caller in question doesn't appear until the end of the last act, and in the stage directions he's described simply as "a nice ordinary young man." Even Tom Wingfield, the narrator and playwright's alter ego, dismisses him in the very first scene as "a symbol; he is the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for."

With all that baggage, it could be easy for an actor to treat the Gentleman Caller as a conceit and not a character. But as played by Brian J. Smith in the current Broadway revival at the Booth Theatre, this Gentleman Caller---also known as Jim, a former big man in high school turned low-level coworker of Tom's---is a fully fleshed-out individual. His journey is just as vibrant as the arcs of aspiring writer Tom, his catatonically shy sister Laura, and their overbearing yet frightened mother Amanda.

Smith credits director John Tiffany for informing his multilayered take on the role. "From the outset, John insisted there was something about this guy that isn't usually seen," he says. "He's a living and breathing human being. We wanted to make sure Jim felt like part of the quartet, instead of a set piece who comes in and leaves. He's is an integral part of the story, not a sideshow

Like his cast mates Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger and two-time Tony winner Cherry Jones, Smith knew The Glass Menagerie, but he was thankful to have only a passing acquaintance with the play. "I had read it in school and seen the [1987] movie version, but pretty much all I remember is John Malkovich making faces," he says. "I'm glad. I didn't want to be even subtlety influenced by other interpretations. All four of us came to see The Glass Menagerie through John's eyes."

Tiffany takes an evocative approach to Williams' autobiographically-inspired "memory play." In this production, which debuted earlier this year to great acclaim at Cambridge's American Repertory Theater, the Wingfields seem to be trapped in a twilight zone where they magically emerge from thin air and glide instead of walk across the stage. Jim, an outsider, upsets their delicate existence. As Tom observes, he is "an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from." But that doesn't mean he is one dimensional. "It would be easy to play Jim as a charming, kind of clueless poster-board person," Smith says. "But there's something heartbroken about him. Underneath, he's really not that confident. I can relate to that. I'm more insecure than most actors I know. I'm not the kind of guy who can walk into a room and charm the pants off anyone."

Smith's self-assessment seems a bit strange considering he spent his last two Broadway roles, in The Columnist and Come Back, Little Sheba, half naked. (Google his name and the first auto-fill suggestion is "Brian J. Smith shirtless.") Plus, while still in drama school, he approached current costar Jones at the stage door of Doubt and declared that they would work together someday. "Isn't that crazy?" he laughs. "It's so funny how other people see you and how you see yourself. That's always been my struggle as an actor. I'm baffled that anybody wants to see me shirtless. It's been difficult for me to reconcile. I think that's how Jim experiences life, too. People expect him to act a certain way, to be a stud, but internally he's just a shy mess. That hits very close to home for me. I feel like I'm making a personal statement about myself at every performance."

Even if you're well aware of the play's emotionally devastating climax, you may still feel crushed when Jim and Laura, two lonely and confused kindred spirits, go their separate ways. It's a testament to the actors' performances that you hold out hope that this time things might turn out differently. "They really fall in love during that scene," says Smith. "Laura is the most authentic human being Jim has ever met. She draws this playful, childlike thing out of him. She remembers the best of him when the rest of the world sees someone it has no use for. When he kisses her and tells her she's pretty, he'll never be more sincere or more himself."


Raven Snook writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.

Photo by Michael J. Lutch