The sensitive-soul tragedy seems to be in fashion downtown, because only a few blocks from the Exit the Actors Theater is reviving The Glass Menagerie. A good production last summer of Night of the Iguana suggested that the Actors Theater had a knack, as a company, for staging Tennessee Williams. Menagerie suggests otherwise. It isn't long or unwieldy like Iguana, but it's as delicate as the glass animals that occupy Laura's mind, and since Williams puts two separate versions of himself into what we all know is an autobiographical script, it's hard not to shatter an audience's expectations of the way Tom should be played. But Tom, I'm afraid, is not done well. Elijah Berlow plays him with a single note of immature surliness and rage. The louche, clever, realistic side is not there at all, which means the humor isn't, either. Robert Corrick does a better job with the older Tom, the narrator, but even he seems careful with his lines, trying to get them out cleanly rather than attempting to evoke a character.

The show has some life, though. Anne Macey plays Amanda with warmth and color. It would be easy to stage a cartoon of the Southern matron in reduced circumstances, dolling up her daughter for a visit from a "gentleman caller," but Macey, under Jean Shelton's direction, offers a subtle portrait of an aging belle, charged with pathos as well as humor. Her inflection and timing are finely tuned, so a speech by her can sound like a whole symphony of nostalgia, pettishness, hope, and regret. This show leaves out the words and pictures projected on a screen that the script calls for, like "Plans and Provisions," when Amanda starts fretting to Tom about making "plans and provisions" for Laura's future; but Macey's performance is strong enough to survive those heavy-handed touches by Williams, and I think the projections would have worked.

Steven Coleman's set is excellent, as it was in Iguana: Brownish grape-patterned wallpaper, a gramophone, a dingy sofa, and an old credenza bearing silverware all nicely evoke a Southern family on its way down in 1930s St. Louis. But flat performances and choppy scene-changes make the first act a letdown, and the play only comes alive in the second act. The long, awkward courtship between Laura (Rachel Klyce) and her gentleman caller, Jim, is involving: Dean Shreiner plays Jim with an all-American energy that rides the edge of caricature, but his exit at the end really does feel sad, and the success of this scene literally saves the show.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Tales From the Dark Side
San Francisco Ballet. At the War Memorial Opera House, 401 Van Ness (at Grove), through Feb. 14. Call 865-2000.

Bad behavior, both comic and disturbing, takes center stage in the first two programs of San Francisco Ballet's '99 season. Though there are moments of pure, unbridled joy, tension abounds, and some of the most luminous dancing comes from the darkest places.

The Lesson, Fleming Flindt's 1963 adaptation of Eugene Ionesco's black comedy, is such a place. The Dutch choreographer, who personally persuaded the playwright that he could do the piece justice despite Ionesco's apparent distaste for ballet, went on to craft a taut one-act that even Ionesco admitted to admiring. The ballet affords fine dramatic possibilities, and Yuri Possokhov, as the unhinged Professor, makes the most of these. Set in a dance studio that more closely resembles a prison, with designer Jens Jacobs Worsaae's slate-gray color scheme and bars over the windows, Flindt's Lesson concerns the clash of wills among an eager-to-please dance student, a sadistic teacher, and the tight-lipped pianist who covers up the teacher's misdeeds. Each is meant as an allegorical character of Nazi Germany -- the pupil as citizen, the teacher as Hitler, and the pianist (a maid in the play) as a Himmler-like figure -- and though the ballet works on its own merits, its goose-stepping conclusion and Possokhov's terrifying bully of a Professor can't help but evoke its inspiration. Possokhov dances the role superbly, his tightly wound fury interspersed by Chaplin-esque flashes of vulnerability. He plays jeering puppetmaster to Julia Adam's confused Pupil, literally manipulating her legs as she struggles to break free from his grasp. As the pianist, Anna Panciotti's crisp efficiency is a perfect foil to Possokhov's madness. It's a gripping ballet that unfolds in layers until the bitter but satisfying end.

Possokhov plays a different kind of viper in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's The Invitation, which finally makes its local premiere after its original 1962 debut at London's Covent Garden. This is a story ballet with an ugly twist: At a society party, a youthful dalliance between cousins is interrupted by the arrival of an older married couple whose unhappiness, telegraphed in their stiff carriage, infects the proceedings. The Wife (Sabina Allemann) seduces the young male cousin (Vadim Solomakha), while a flirtation between the young girl cousin (Lucia Lacarra) and the Husband (Possokhov) ends violently. Lacarra dances her part with winsome girlishness; flattered by the older man's attention during a party sequence, she flicks a delicate, perfectly articulated foot in his direction, an invitation of sorts.

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