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A CurtainUp Review
A Streetcar Named Desire
By Elyse Sommer
Whether staged traditionally or with a new-fangled concept, that French Quarter bound streetcar named Desire has kept depositing Blanches in front of her sister's poorly furnished, claustrophobic home. Over the years since Curtainup was launched, we've reviewed almost a dozen productions. The year 2009 was a particularly fertile one, with excellent revivals in New Jersey, in the Berkshires. Best of all, that year brought us the the Sydney Theater Company's creme-de-la-creme production at the Kennedy Center and BAM with Cate Blanchett delivering a Blanche right up there with Jessica Tandy and Vivian Leigh, and Joel Edgerton a Stanley Kowalski who didn't just tilt at windmills in trying to do justice to the role forever branded by Brando.
That 2009 triple-Streetcar season made the thought of another revival prompt an "enough already" — until news came about the multi-culturally cast production director Emily Mann says Tennessee Williams wanted for the play but didn't live to see. An African-American cast Cat On a Hot Tin Roof four years ago, paved the way for this version. According to Mann who worked with Williams many years ago, has told interviewers that she's been wanting to fulfill the playwright's wish for a cast like this for twenty years.
Now that Mann's Streetcar has pulled into the Broadhurst (where Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also played) the double question is this: First, has the casting broadened the universality and deepened our perspective of a play many of us have come to know as well as some of its familiar to the point of cliche quoted phrases? And second, how do the actors she's cast measure up to the best Blanch, Stanley, Stella and Mitch performances?
The good news is that the casting does authenticates the cultural diversity that was very much part of New Orleans during the play's time frame and the years Williams lived. Naturally this casting meant that Stanley had to lose his Kowalsky moniker and references to his ethnic background and be just Stanley. Since his brutishness covers his intense neediness to be the undisputed king of his scruffy kingdom having him portrayed by an actor who's more dark skinned than the sisters who grew in wealthier and more refined circumstances, intensifies the escalating Stanley-Blanche hostility. The white landlord and her husband, aptly emphasize the count-counterpoint to Stanley and Blanche's marriage.
As for the actors, Mann is to be admired for not relying on big box office names, with only Blair Underwood, who's been in many popular TV shows, coming as close to being a star attraction. More important, the handsome actor, not only has the most impressive abs I recall seeing on any Stanley, but has a natural stage presence. While there's plenty of the macho male animal on display, the scene where he stands near the door and overhears Blanche bad mouth him reveals the insecurity about his standing as the king and protector of their castle that will drive him to sabotage Blanche's hopes for becoming Mitch's wife and keep that climactic "date" with her when Stella is in the hospital giving birth. Too bad, this sort of "getting" the inner Stanley doesn't happen often enough. To his credit, he does manage to keep the often caricatured "Stella, Stalla" scene from turning into an audience laugh fest.
Nicole Ari Parker is, like a number of Blanches I've seen in recent years, tall and willowy, and not particularly fragile looking. No frilly dress for her entrance, but a white tailored suit. The veil on her big brimmed hat smartly sets up her not wanting her face exposed to the scrutiny of bright lights. Parker's outspoken disdain of her surroundings and her brother-in-law, the aggressive hogging for the bathroom are all in keeping with the character. But the vulnerability and genuinely frayed nerves must come through the snobbish, pretentious mannerisms. With Parker that vulnerability is missing. She's too smoothly made up and well put togeter to make Mitch's view of her in a bright light convincing. The lack of fragility makes the over familiarity and lampooning of Blanche's lyrical "But I have been foolish -- casting my pearls before swine" even more subject to unintended audience giggles (which was the case at the performance I attended).
Despite the genteel, schoolteacher front, Blanche, like so many Williams characters, has an appetite for sex as well as alcohol. This should be poignantly evident in the brief scene during which she flirts with the newspaper delivery boy. It's too bad Ms. Mann couldn't have guided Parker to pull at our heartstrings instead of allowing this scene to come off as completely superfluous. Unfortunately Parker's diction also leaves a lot to be desired and Paul Tazwell, who usually does outstanding costume work, has, except for the initial scene's suit and hat, gone overboard in making her other outfits too fancy and inappropriate.
Daphne Rubin-Vega is more emotionally true to her character. Her Stella never leaves us in doubt that she has no desire or intention of leaving Stanley. Yet it's also clear that she loves her sister and her pain at to Stanley's revelations about her sister's true history. As Stanley's anger makes his climactic "date" with Blanche even more brutal than in most previous productions, so Stella's pain turns to operatic agony when Blanche is finally totally defeated and delivers her famous "I've always relied on the kindness of strangers" Wood Harris is an okay Mitch. However, neither he or Rubin-Vega, any more than Underwood and Parker, are likely to go into anyone's book of really unforgettable characters. The one standout in the ensemble is Amelia Campbell as the upstairs neighbor Eunice.
While Eugene Lee's set design depicts an aptly impoverished, cramped apartment, the bathroom which is such a major point of contention is too far upstage. I missed the wrought iron railing usually seen on the staircase outside the apartment, but I suppose this production's wooden stair case is meant to accentuate the tenement look. At any rate, Ms. Mann hasn't totally neglected the New Orleans flavor. It here comes from the mix of street people wandering the space in front of the apartment between scenes accompanied by Terence Blanchard's original music which do help to turn these brief downstage street scenes into a flavorful gumbo.
By and large, this Streetcar. . . the freshness of the casting is not enough to make this a groundbreaking, heart stopping production. It is, however, a commendable effort to reflect the New Orleans where Tennessee Williams created some of the contemporary theater's ever memorable characters.
For more about Tennessee Wlliams with links to other Williams plays we've reviewed, see our Tennessee Williams Backgrounder.
©Copyright 2012, Elyse Sommer.
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