Sunday, April 22, 2012

Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker in A Streetcar Named Desire

In the 26 years I have lived in Manhattan Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire has been revived on Broadway roughly once each decade.  Even with top notch productions and star-studded casts they just can't seem to get it right.  Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange did not generate any electricity onstage and came off as passionless in 1992.  John C. Reilly was horribly miscast opposite an indulgent Natasha Richardson in 2005.  Both of those productions tanked at the box office, leaving me to wonder if this play can't be produced due to overfamiliarity with its original, iconic performances.  However in 2009 the Aussies got it right in a searingly emotional production starring Cate Blanchett that played Washington, D.C. and BAM which completely blew me away.  The same cannot be said of the current revival which opened tonight.

Regarded as a pinnacle of the American theatre “Streetcar” is arguably Williams’ masterpiece.  The provocatively themed work served as an excellent vehicle to showcase the talents of young Marlon Brando (he was 23 when the play debuted) who epitomized American "Method acting" and helped bring it to the  forefront of theatre and cinema.  The "method" involved portraying real emotions based on sense memory and directly opposed the old style "presentational" technique which indicated feeling, and Williams' writing spectacularly captures this change in the way he depicts his main characters.  At first glance Blanche may appear the gentile, fluttery Southern belle, but through absolute verisimilitude of writing layers of humanity are uncovered and she becomes accepted and pitied by the audience despite her hysteria and character flaws.  And it is precisely the lack of this hysteria that sinks the current production. 

Nicole Ari Parker and director Emily Mann have apparently worked in tandem to strip Blanche of every bit of crazy and as a result the entire evening plays off-kilter.  Parker's Blanche is still too much the lady, not emotionally devastated enough that the home and life she once knew have been torn away through the indiscretions and deaths of her ancestors.  I felt that her portrayal almost had feminist undertones, that she could handle all that had happened to her and accept her subsequent promiscuity, and while I can admire an actress wanting to put her stamp on a role, she went very much in the wrong direction here.  Blanche DuBois simply cannot be played as a strong Southern woman who only breaks down in the end; this robs the story of tension and makes the climactic scene play as melodrama.  When Parker's Blanche understands what it is to drink too much Southern Comfort every night and entertain bus loads of boys from a military base all to mask her inability to cope with death and the demise of her lifestyle then she will have my interest.  Unfortunately that is not going to happen this time around at the Broadhurst theatre.

A further misstep of director Mann is that she does not trust the script and feels the need to interpolate extraneous business to enhance the show.  I found no reason for the (weak) depiction of a New Orleans funeral at the top of Act 2, and was perplexed by her need to incorporate dance movement, as though she felt the play would drag without a pick-me-up.

When the main character is so off it is difficult to properly evaluate the other actors, but I will commend Daphne Rubin-Vega for juxtaposing unbridled sexuality with strength of intelligence and giving us a Stella who I believed would leave Stanley tomorrow if his outbursts went any farther.  Wood Harris as Mitch also gets points in my book for some very unexpected line readings and a unique take on a typically bland role.  Blair Underwood, whose presence I am certain is the raison d'etre of this production, is a good if not very original Stanley.  I would have hoped that casting leads with different ethnicity would distance the actors from the long cast shadows of their predecessors, but apparently Brando's original reaches quite far.  From his first scene where he strips off his shirt and displays a ripped, muscular physique the hoots and catcalls from the audience tell exactly why much of the largely female audience came to see the play.  What Underwood does bring is a strong sexual magnetism and a powerfully dangerous masculinity that made me concerned for the women at each of his outbursts, and the final rape scene was as brutal as I could imagine it being. 

Fundamentally though this "Streetcar" is hard to accept simply because I don't know if there is a precedent for a family of African decent to have a mansion for hundreds of years in Laurel, Mississippi.  I appreciated the experiment, but I believe this play would become more interesting with truly interracial casting; Stella and Blanche cast as white, with Stanley and Mitch cast as black.  However as a marketing ploy the current production will hopefully bring new audiences to the theatre who might otherwise never get to experience Williams' classic story.

Visit or phone (212) 239-6200. The Broadhurst Theatre is located at 235 West 44th Street.

Production photos courtesy of the official web site