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A Streetcar Named Desire

I've come to rely on the kindness of strangers
--- Blanche

Natasha Richardson &  John C. Reilly
Natasha Richardson & John C. Reilly
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The genteel lady fallen on hard times, Blanche DuBois, her sister Stella, her crude husband Stanley Kowalski and Blanche's potential savior, Mitch -- these are characters whose names have become part of our cultural vocabulary along with bits and pieces of dialogue like Blanche's disdainful remark about having cast her pearls before swine. Like some Shakespeare roles, these are high on an actor's wish list.

Our newest Blanche is Natasha Richardson -- she's tall, beautiful but not particularly fragile looking. When I learned William C. Reilly, the silver screen's perennial sad-sack hubby, was going to play Stanley I expected to either have my eyes opened to a new kind of Stanley or race to the video store for the seminal 1951 film with the original Broadway lead, Marlon Brando (along with his Broadway colleagues Kim Hunter and Karl Malden with new cast member Vivien Leigh).

Well, I didn't have to rush to the video store, mainly because the original cast members faces and performances are as deeply etched in my mind's eyes as the songs from shows like South Pacific and My Fair Lady play in my ear at the mere mention of a title. Natasha Richardson may not eclipse my memories of the ethereal Vivien Leigh, but her Blanche DuBois is quite wonderful. She has nothing to fear from that cruel close-up light the angry Mitch shines on her near the end of the play, she nevertheless projects the decayed fragility of the erstwhile Southern belle whose embattled visit to her younger sister's home has literally and figuratively brought her to the end of the line. Amy Ryan as Stella is also believable as a woman whose life is dictated by passion. Chris Bauer is also quite credible as Mitch, a mama's boy variation of The Glass Menagerie's gentleman caller.

That leaves the big question mark pertaining to John C. Reilly's unconventional looking Stanley. Actually, it was Brando's chiseled good looks and not anything Tennessee Williams specified in his stage directions that made finding an Adonis who sizzles with sex appeal a sort of holy grail.

Rather than attempting the impossible feat of casting another Brando (as Dolores Gregory said in her review of the Kennedy Center revival featuring Adam Rothenberg's "He's no Marlon Brando. Who is? Even Brando isn't Brando any more"), Edward Hall has opted for a totally against the grain Stanley. Not that Brando wasn't a beer-swilling slob but that rippling torso and gorgeous profile made you understand Stella's overlooking Stanley's abusive behavior with "there are things that happen between a man and a woman that sort of makes everything else. . .unimportant."

This Stanley's face isn't ugly so much as plain and pudgy -- an Everyman face. His torso doesn't ripple and is, in fact, a bit flabby (all that beer drinking and snd sitting around the poker table!). Reilly's Stanley is a working class stiff with a dangerously short fuse that his disdainful sister-in-law ignites. He's a more volatile version of the nebbish-y husband in The Hours and Chicago and so the tension between him and Blanche is fuelled by insecurity and hate. The " we've had this date with each other from the beginning " prefaces a genuine rape, a browbeating bully beating a weak opponent without mercy.

Reilly's looks and acting fulfill Mr. Hall's vision for an interestingly different Stanley. But the ghost of Brando refuses to be banished. A Streetcar with a Stanley low on sexual sizzle simply can't pass the fully satisfying test. This is underscored by the fact that the play has a character in Mitch who seems made to order for Reilly -- and was in fact played by him in a Chicago production. That said, if I were asked which of two of the two Williams' classics currently on Broadway to see -- A Streetcar Named Desire is a no contest choice over The Glass Menagerie, also directed by Brit bent on giving Williams a fresh twist.

Natasha Richardson, unlike Menagerie's leading lady (Jessica Lange), is a Blanche to remember, as is Amy Ryan's conflicted Stella. And, while Robert Brill's set looks a lot like a the one in Menagerie but with New Orleanized railings for the stairs alongside the main playing area, this one works much better. The life on that curving staircase and hallway outside the Kowalski's squalid apartment little apartment creates a sense of opening things up, as in a film. Donald Holder's lighting adds to the atmosphere and William Ivey Long has provided Blanche with an elegant white suit for her entrance, and an even more elegant blue suit with a hood to heighten the drama of her wrenching "Just passing by " exit.

Finally, after years of enduring Studio 54's uncomfortable cabaret style seating, those awful little tables and chairs are gone. Whether you approve of Mr. Hall's unconventional casting or not, you will be watching it in a more comfortable and conventional seat.

A Streetcar Named Desire -- DC, 2004 also featuring Amy Ryan as Stella
A Streetcar Named Desire -- Off Broadway
A Streetcar Named Desire -- London
Our Tennessee Williams Backgrounder

A Streetcar Named Desire
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Edward Hall.
Cast: Natasha Richardson (Blanche DuBois), John C. Reilly (Stanley Kowalski), Amy Ryan (Stella Kowalski), Chris Bauer (Mitch), Wanda L. Houston (A Negro Woman), Kristine Nielsen (Eunice Hubbell), Scott Sowers (Steve Hubbell), Frank Pando (Pablo Gonzales), Will Toale (A Young Collector), Teresa Yenque (A Mexican Woman), John Carter (A Doctor) and Barbara Sims (A Nurse).
Set Design: Robert Brill
Costume Design: William Ivey Long
Lighting Design: Donald Holder. Original Music and sound design: John Gromada
Hair and wig design: Paul Huntley
Dialect Coach: Deborah Hecht
Fight Direction: Rick Sordelet
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes with an intermission
Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, 212.719.1300
From 3/26/05 to 7/03/05; opening 4/25/05
Tuesday - Saturday Evenings at 7:30pm; Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday Matinees at 2pm
Starting May 31 - June 10: Tue - Sat at 7pm; Wed, Sat, Sun at 2pm
Tickets: Orch Rows A - N $91.25, Orch Rows O - P $61.25, Front Mezz Rows AA-DD $91.25, Rear Mezz Rows EE-KK $61.25, Rear Mezz Rows LL-MM $51.25, Rear Mezz Row NN $36.25Pricing: $36.25 - $91.25
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 28th performance
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