There’s nothing definitive about the new Desire revival
It’s hard to breathe new life into a classic work. With performers ranging from the iconic Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh to Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Jessica Lange, Frances McDormand, and Treat Williams breathing life and resuscitating it into the immortal roles of Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, is there any insight that hasn’t been gained when putting Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire under a microscope?
Emily Mann’s current version, adorning the Broadhurst Theatre, tries a new tact by adopting a cosmetic approach, featuring a non-white cast in the principal roles. This decision on its own doesn’t really dilute the work (aside from stripping away Stanley’s working-class Polish heritage), and yet the end result, despite a disciplined performance by Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche, remains a distinctly neutered affair.
One of the key elements to Streetcar is passion. It’s what drives Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) back to Stanley (Blair Underwood) every time his abusive temper causes her to run; it’s what has caused a great many of Blanche’s ruinous past indiscretions; and it’s what ignites what is at first an emotional and then eventually a physical battle royale between Stella’s older sister and her husband. The stakes should be huge in this battle of old school gentility and new school animal instinct; everybody, somehow, loses in the end. This Streetcar faithfully follows the battle but never engages us in the war.
I can’t fault the soldiers, at least not completely. Underwood’s good looks have always been this actor’s stock-in-trade, and his physicality makes him a magnetic Stanley (as evidenced by the distracting whooping going on in the audience), but not a brutish one. This cuts down on the contrast with Blanche. Stanley may be an animal, but you know what you’re going to get with him. On the other hand, Blanche, fading into a world of mental instability, is all images and mendacity. From the moment she steps off the titular trolley and crashes her sister and brother-in-law’s squalid apartment (realistically designed By Eugene Lee, although lit a bit too brightly by Edward Pierce), nothing she puts forward is steeped in truth or reliability. Her delicate act belies a selfish cruelty that should threaten to detonate everything in her path.
But Mann’s production hits the notes without sounding any tune. The scenes don’t escalate to the point where the audience must worry that this powder keg is going to explode. Parker, onstage throughout almost the entirety of this nearly three-hour show, plays Blanche as smart but a loose cannon, haunted by shame, wrecked by guilt and willing to use her wiles to get whatever. This works until the second act, starting with a climactic scene opposite Wood Harris’s Mitch. Suddenly, characters’ reactions in this heretofore naturalistic production seem inorganic. We’re improperly prepared for the unassertive Mitch to lambast Blanche, and Blanche’s ultimate submission to Stanley’s victimization is jarring but only in a sensational way. Furthermore, Rubin-Vega’s Stella lacks some of the carnal conviction required to ensure loyalty to her husband over her sister. (Amelia Campbell makes the most of a small role as upstairs neighbor Eunice).
Mann’s Streetcar isn’t ablaze, but it isn’t a total wash either. How could it be? Williams’ work is too potent to completely lack effect. Like a streetcar trip itself, sometimes a slow, rocky journey can still be justified by the destination.
A Streetcar Named Desire
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St. www.Telecharge.com. Through July 22.
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