Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Streetcar Named Desire

In contrast to, for example, Liv Ullman's version of A Streetcar Named Desire (or David Cromer's or Edward Hall's), Emily Mann's version respects and serves the play. It is clear and straightforward and largely well-cast; it allows the beauty and sadness of Tennessee Williams' brilliant piece to come through. In brief, it is excellent. (Note: this review assumes a preexisting knowledge of Streetcar; if you want to avoid spoilers, go no further.)

Nicole Ari Parker, Blair Underwood
Photo: Ken Howard
First, let's get the whole multi-culti casting thing out of the way: the actors' races are pretty much irrelevant. What is relevant is their classes, and here we have one of this production's few flaws. Daphne Rubin-Vega's Stella never lived at Belle Reve, the DuBois estate in the 1940s; this Stella grew up in a small apartment in a not-so-great neighborhood in the 1980s. It doesn't help that Rubin-Vega's accent comes and goes and that her performance is largely awkward and unconvincing.

Blair Underwood brings a level of elegance to Stanley that is also not quite right for the part, but his performance is strong and moving, and it's easy to extend suspension of disbelief his way. I did however have to occasionally remind myself that Stella had supposedly "married down"; in this production Stanley seems, well, classier than Stella.

Wood Harris is unusual casting as Mitch, again for reasons having nothing to do with race. Mitch is traditionally overweight and a bit shleppy. Harris is thin and attractive, but his presentation of Mitch as an awkward, nerdy guy works well. His Mitch is gangly, all arms and legs, and genuinely sweet. It's a nice performance.

Which brings us to Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche. Any Streetcar lives or dies by its Blanche, and Parker is superb. Her Blanche begins confident, with flashes of vulnerability and fear, and loses her bravado bit by painful bit as her last-chance refuge turns perilous. Parker's Blanche is fully realized, worthy of sympathy yet obnoxious and annoying, manipulative yet somehow loving, self-centered but also self-aware.  Her descent into madness is well-calibrated and heart-breaking.

This production is also well-served by the supporting cast and Mann's use of them. The between-scenes' depictions of New Orleans are their own entertaining playlets. The "flowers-for-the-dead" woman is genuinely creepy. Aaron Clifton Moten as the teenager who Blanche semi-seduces offers a perfect combination of awkwardness and willingness to have this adventure.

In addition, Terence Blanchard's music sets the mood perfectly, although I missed having a distinct, rinky-tink piece of period music to represent Blanche's final dance with her young husband. The set by Eugene Lee and costumes by Paul Tazewell are just right. The lighting by Edward Pierce is marvelously evocative, and when Mitch insists on really seeing Blanche, the light from the bare bulb is a devastating flash of lightning.

Another thing that must be discussed is the audience. As has been reported elsewhere, Underwood's truly gorgeous chest is indeed greeted with hooting and hollering. However, by the last fourth of the show the night I saw it, the audience was largely quieted, aware that what was going on was no laughing matter. By the time of the rape, the audience felt appropriately horrified. I wonder if the blocking and/or costuming was changed to make sure that Underwood was not seen topless again.

Any Streetcar cast necessarily has wrestle with ghosts. Marlon Brando's "Stella!" is iconic, and while Blanche's "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" is not associated with any one performer, it is well know to the point of cliche. A sign of the excellence of this production is that these moments are completely successful. Underwood's "Stella" is less the bellow of a wounded animal and more a genuine regretful neediness; it's even a little sad. And Parker's "kindness of strangers" is a heart-breaking moment of complete surrender.

Because Mann chooses an approach that serves the play, and because the show is largely well-acted, this is a well-balanced Streetcar. The characters make sense, even at their worst. Blanche is snotty and a pain-in-the-ass, but she is also trapped in the wrong time and place and damaged beyond repair. Stanley is violent and mean, but Blanche really does turn his life upside down. Before she arrives, he and Stella are happy together making those "colored lights"; Blanche takes away their privacy, is condescending and rude, and drives a wedge between them. Stanley's rape of Blanche is not about sex; it is about reclaiming his turf. It is awful, it is unacceptable, but it is not incomprehensible. And Stanley's decision to tell Mitch the truth about Blanche is completely fair and reasonable, even while being thoroughly destructive of two people's lives. Oddly enough, though Blanche is completely dishonest with Mitch, I think she might have made him happy. Tennessee Williams wrote a complex play about people's strengths and weaknesses and desires crashing together and causing irreparable damage; Mann's production presents every complexity.

On perusing the reviews, most of them based on performances a week or so earlier than the one I saw, I found myself wondering if perhaps this production took a few extra days to hit its stride. With the exception of comments on Rubin-Vega, who unfortunately remains weak, the other criticisms seemed to be of a different play than I saw. There's no way to ever know, of course. Not only is each performance of a play different and unique--the true glory of theatre--but the performance we each see is also colored by our different seats and beliefs, personalities, and lives.

All I know for sure is that the Streetcar I saw was the real thing.

(third row on the aisle; press ticket)

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