By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated March 28, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

Amanda Wingfield is, famously, one of the great worst mothers of American drama — a creature, first unleashed by Tennessee Williams in The Glass Menagerie in 1944, bred of too much narcissism and too much disappointment. In her feverish and ravenous unhappiness, Amanda destroys the futures of her own children, the crippled, hopeless Laura and the flighty, furious Tom. But she does it, in the best of Menageries and with the best of Amandas, with a kind of fatal inevitability: We understand with a mixture of horror and pity how this particular faded Southern belle whose husband drank and left could have such a lethal effect on her own cowed daughter and her son who drinks and will, we know, eventually leave too.

But we understand little of the newest Amanda on Broadway in the flirty, high-strung performance of Jessica Lange, presently bullying Sarah Paulson’s Laura with talk of gentlemen callers in a tonally unstable production directed by David Leveaux (who staged the recent revivals of Fiddler on the Roof and Nine). Choosing to play the role in a constant state of willful girlishness, with much choreography of hands touching flushed cheek, Lange propels Williams’ powerful memory play at an exhausting pitch of nervous energy, exaggerated by ongoing stage business involving the opening and closing of lacy-sheer curtains. Oddly, Christian Slater’s Tom seems as if he could take on a dame like Lange’s Amanda any day — a different kind of mother-son problem, and one resulting in many of the production’s unintended laughs.

There’s an interlude of excitement when the Gentleman Caller arrives: Josh Lucas brings an energizing American-boy openness to the role, and his pivotal scene with Paulson is a delicate pas de deux containing love’s tendernesses and treacheries. Then the high-maintenance Amanda returns, candles blazing so crazily and so insistently that we half expect Laura to pull on a coat and clomp away to a little peace and quiet.