It would be nice to report that the current Broadway revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” exhibits the timelessness and brilliance of Tennessee Williams’s supreme achievement. Sadly, it is only the superficial ambiance created by set designer Eugene Lee — the assertively crummy and cramped tenement setting within the seedy New Orleans French quarter — that is effective. There is also some original jazz underscoring by Terence Blanchard to mood, as well as a diverting digression signaling mourners led by dance legend Carmen DeLavallade to cross the stage in a typically evocative funeral procession. It is in the casting/acting and in the generally lethargic pacing that this otherwise well-intentioned production falters under the direction of Emily Mann.
Mann’s approach to the play is undeniably adventurous, even commendable in that she has embraced it with a multi-cultural vision. The principals are notable black actors with significant TV credits. It is a pity that the result of Mann’s efforts is neither particularly progressive nor revelatory. There is a glimmer in her approach, however, of what could have been.
The nature of the play’s extraordinarily provocative characters continues to have an uncanny hold on its audience, though the audience at the performance I attended was all too willing to laugh given the least provocation. Mann seems to have relied heavily on the brute forces that gird the play rather than on the softer, more melancholy aspects at its heart.
Taking Broadway by storm, “A Streetcar Named Desire” received both the Pulitzer Prize and Critics Circle Awards in 1947. It has had many revivals, some better than others. While some productions favor the play’s bid to be blatantly sensational, other productions favor the poetic lyricism that essentially drives this poignant but gritty story of Blanche Dubois, a despondent but extraordinary being. High strung, but proud, she lives in a mist of past reveries while her brother-in-law ridicules and debases her mind and body.
There is little doubt that Mann respects this impeccably written play, but that she just hasn’t been able to help her lead actress through the inherent dangers that come with playing Blanche, one being the ability to balance the Blanche’s self-consciously grandiose moments and skittish eccentricities with her need to also back-pedal her increasingly neurotic feelings of insecurity. There is an early scene that not only trips up the very attractive Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche, but also gives us a clue that she really has not yet found in Blanche that which makes her both vulnerable and even voracious in her needs.
This is particularly in evidence when Blanche complains to her sister about Stanley’s animalism. In it, she is expressing, however faintly, an ideal. It is, among other illusory imagery, something that Parker never effectively communicates, but it should shadow Blanche throughout the play. Parker’s cold stares and neutralized mannerisms are indicators of an interpretation that at its best is bland and at its worst uninteresting. That Parker’s performance isn’t predicated on hysteria could be a plus, but we never, in contrast, see her conscientiously dedicated to maintaining her emotional equilibrium. What should be a heart-breaking scene is simply perfunctory as Blanche yields to her tormented memories of the “poetic,” tragically fated young man she idolized and married. The role of Blanche is so exquisitely written that it seems a shame that Parker isn’t able to earn our empathy and affect our total immersion into Blanche’s plight.
Stella is played with a slightly abrasive but also commendable honesty by Daphne Rubin-Vega, who has no trouble grabbing our attention or the spotlight given the almost disappearing and dispiriting shadow of Blanche’s presence. In control of her household with a positive sense of security, Stella never lets Blanche destroy her world with her disruptive ranting. Rubin-Vega loses little time convincing us that, despite her devotion to her sister, her allegiance to Stanley is never in doubt. She makes it clear that, in spite of her sexual enslavement, she is content and even thrilled by her life in the New Orleans ghetto.
A formidable presence only by right of his stature and muscularity, Blair Underwood is predominantly a one-note Stanley who also seems unable to find a bridge between vulgarity and sensuality. He is merely brutalizing in his sound and in his fury. Stanley’s protective and childlike adoration for Stella and his fear of the disturbing influence of Blanche may result in a primitive solution, but Underwood is only content for us to see Stanley as a male animal with macho mannerisms.
Far be it from me to recall for you Marlon Brando, the actor who made Stanley a theatrical legend, but what is mostly missing from Underwood is the projection of Stanley as a complex, potentially threatened, sometimes humiliated, protector of his castle. Wood Harris makes little impression as Mitch, the unsophisticated, soon-to-be disillusioned lug of a momma’s boy. All the other supporting performances go through their paces as the inhabitants of the now familiar terrain and as players in those all-night poker games without ever glorifying, as they should, some of Williams’s most dazzling array of incompatible humanity. I did like Amelia Campbell’s tough-as-nails Eunice, the amusingly intrusive landlady.
Another quibble: Costume designer Paul Tazewell has gone to a lot of trouble outfitting Parker in fashionable and frothy frocks that seem to have been purchased that morning rather than being survivors of many a hot night’s escape from reality. Even Edward Pierce’s lighting seems to miss the mood in a play that desperately needs one. **
“A Streetcar Named Desire,” Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street. Through July 22. For tickets call 212-236-6200.
Do The Critics Agree?
“A torpid revival,” wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times. “When the woman in the seat beside me started to nod off during the first act of this ‘Streetcar,’ I didn’t have the heart to nudge her. Handsomely designed by a top-flight team ... this ‘Streetcar’ is mostly an exquisite snooze.”
Newsday’s Linda Winer writes, “Director Emily Mann and Stephen C. Byrd ... have put together a solid, credible, more aggressive than poetic ‘Streetcar.’”
“This is not a reinvention of the 1947 play, as the casting conceit might suggest. Nor is it a revelation in terms of startling new takes on familiar characters. It tends to underserve the pathos while more assiduously exploring the humor and sensuality. But while it’s uneven, this is a muscular staging driven by four compelling, sexy lead performances and a sturdy ensemble,” writes Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney. “Mann’s loose, naturalistic approach to the text is respectful without being too reverential. What distinguishes her production, however, is the evocative atmosphere of a milieu in which sex, death and violence perfume the sweaty air.”
Howard Shapiro of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes, “The tale of Blanche — a trashy Southern woman who has lost the family estate and lives in delusions of grandeur — is fluid and powerful in the staging by Emily Mann, the artistic director of Princeton’s McCarter Theater.”
Time Out New York says: “In this curiously unlived-in Streetcar, the too-glossy cast members treat Tennessee Williams’s masterpiece with an odd mixture of care and camp, their gingerliness as damaging as the lapses into melodrama. The actors deliver clear but blunt portraits, and in the absence of complexity, we come away conscious of only two things—namely, ‘it’s hot in New Orleans’ and ‘hoo boy, sex.’”