Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams’s classic A Streetcar Named Desire is back on Broadway, and this time it’s with a multiracial cast. Directed by Emily Mann, it’s a great interpretation of a play we all know, and the fact that it did not receive a Tony nomination for Best Revival of a Play is just more evidence of what a great year it was for plays.

In case you need it, here’s a refresher on the story: Blanche DuBois (Nicole Ari Parker) takes a streetcar named desire to get to Elysian Fields, the New Orleans street on which Blanche’s sister, Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega), and Stella’s husband Stanley (Blair Underwood) live. Blanche and Stella enjoyed a privileged upbringing and Blanche is more than a bit shocked to see Stella’s current digs and to meet her brutish husband. The relationships between and interactions among the three, as well as Blanche’s love interest, Stella and Stanley’s friend Mitch (Wood Harris), drives the action of the play. We watch as Blanche slowly unravels until finally the doctor comes to take her away and Blanche ends the play with her famous line, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” (Note: The original production premiered and took place in 1947; in this iteration, the action is set in 1952.)

I’ll spare you the English lit class discussion of the symbolism within the show, but for a moment I must comment on the decision to make this a multiracial production. I’ve never seen Streetcar performed on stage (I’ve only read it and seen the film) so I can’t justifiably say that this choice necessarily adds or takes away anything. I do wonder, though, about fidelity to the time period. This takes place in 1952 in the south. Stella and Stanley (a black couple in this production) live in the downstairs part of a multifamily home, which is owned by a white couple. (They live upstairs.) Would that have happened in New Orleans in the 50s? Would there be a mixed-race multifamily home, or is it more realistic that multifamily homes would be inhabited by one race? This is the only component of the play that gave me pause for concern.

Regardless, the home, designed by Eugene Lee, is appropriately cramped and weathered. When I first saw the home, I thought it didn’t give the actors enough playing space. While it is confining, I soon realized that that’s the point. These characters are uncomfortably stuck together, and their physical closeness adds plenty of fuel to the fire in their rows. Helping to develop the characters are Paul Tazewell’s incredible - and Tony-nominated - costumes. While Stella and Stanley are mostly in working class garb, Blanche is always put together, looking chic and sophisticated even when she’s just in her bustiere and petticoat.

Providing the bulk of the character development, though, is the cast, with mixed results. Wood Harris excels as Mitch, displaying a level of class above Stanley’s animal instincts while falling under Blanche’s spell. In his Broadway debut, Blair Underwood does fine work as Stanley. He strikes the delicate balance between pure brute and seducer extraordinaire. Unfortunately, Daphne Rubin-Vega (who originated the role of Mimi in Rent) was disappointing. Her Stella came off as a pouty, petulant teenager, rather than an adult yet vulnerable woman.

But the greatest discovery of the play is Nicole Ari Parker. I’ve seen some of her screen work, but was never as impressed as I was with this performance. (To be fair, in the limited exposure I’ve had to her thus far I’ve never seen her tackle a role this meaty.) Blanche is a monster but Parker does exceptional work, bringing soul, sympathy and many more layers to this classic theatrical character. (Again, it was a packed year for plays with phenomenal performances from many leading ladies; it’s a shame room wasn’t made for Parker’s superlative performance.)

Though the performances were (mostly) good, the pacing could use a little retooling. There were moments that should have been tighter, and the first act was much too long. As it is written, the play isn’t divided into acts, only scenes. The act break in this production came about three scenes and 15 minutes after it should have, making the first act clock in at nearly 90 minutes and the second at only a brisk 45. My restless legs (and my intellectual stamina) would have preferred a more balanced division of the acts. (I also would have preferred it if the audience hadn’t been so poorly behaved; people were continually crinkling candy wrappers, looking at their phones and carrying on full conversations during the play. Absolutely unacceptable.)

Those relatively minor grievances aside, this is a great production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning classic Tennessee Williams play. It capably displays why it’s a classic, perennially discussed and dissected play, and one that surely depends on the talents of its leading lady. 

To learn more about this limited engagement production of A Streetcar Named Desire and to purchase tickets, visit streetcaronbroadway.com.

No comments:

Post a Comment