So "The Glass Menagerie" is a play about Tom. Who knew?

Ever since Tennessee Williams burst into the world, fully formed, in 1944 with this masterly poetic drama, the vital center has been assumed to be the complicated relationship between the loving and infuriating mother, Amanda Wingfield, and her fragile, painfully shy grown daughter Laura, who limps and only comes alive in her fantasy world of miniature glass animals.

Silly us. In Gordon Edelstein's willful and tedious rethinking (transferred from the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven), the better story is the one about Tom, Laura's brother - the one Williams used as the framing device for his guilty, semi-autobiographical "memory play" about abandoning his needy, hopeless family. Instead of unfolding in a stifling St. Louis apartment, the drama moves to boozy Tom's New Orleans hotel room, where Amanda (the capable but weirdly well-adjusted Judith Ivey) and Laura (the suitably grave and lyrical Keira Keeley) replay the scenes as hotel ghosts.

This could work, maybe, but only if Tom (Patch Darragh) had not been directed to hog every scene, typing pages of his script, taking notes while his loved ones interact and portraying his young self as jaunty, horny and playfully effeminate.

The concept might also work if so much of this soul-shredding tragedy were not played for laughs. This Amanda isn't bothered much by delusional fixations of her lost youth. Nor is there a hint of cruelty as she pushes her damaged daughter into dinner with an ambushed "gentleman caller." Except for the wig and the accent, Ivey's Amanda isn't all that different from her Ann Landers from earlier in the season. When this Amanda makes one of those demeaning calls to sell subscriptions to acquaintances, she actually dances a little Charleston to keep herself amused.

The only scene that touches the heart of Williams is the one Edelstein leaves alone - the candlelit conversation between Laura and her would-be suitor (the sympathetic Michael Mosley). The hotel set, by Michael Yeargan, manages to introduce the flashback scenes without much confusion. The confusion is deeper than furniture.

WHAT "The Glass Menagerie"

WHERE Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.

INFO $70-$80; 212-719-1300;

BOTTOM LINE Wayward Tennessee - dislocated and distorted for laughs

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