A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Edward Hall. Set design by Robert Brill. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Original music and sound design by John Gromada. Hair and wig design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Natasha Richardson, John C. Reilly, with Amy Ryan, Chris Bauer, Starla Benford, John Carter, Wanda L. Houston, Alfredo Narciso, Kristine Nielsen, Frank Pando, Barbara Sims, Scott Sowers, Will Toale, Teresa Yenque.
There are as many facets to the city of New Orleans as there are to most Tennessee Williams plays, but one they undeniably share is heat. For Williams, feelings - spiritual or sexual, freely expressed or repressed enough to burn one alive (usually the latter) - were frequently the order of the day. And never was that more the case than in his landmark, New Orleans-set 1947 play now being revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, A Streetcar Named.
What, you were expecting desire? In that case, you should look elsewhere - neither that nor most basic human emotions have any place in Edward Hall's efficient but lifeless production. It attempts to take a piece plagued with almost mythic preconceptions and spin it in a whole new direction; what happens instead is that the deceptively fragile play spirals helplessly out of control, with its director and cast unable to stop it.
Blame this, if you must, on the play's fiery 1951 movie version, which has hovered like a specter over more than five decades of the show's history. The film, which united Broadway leads Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden with the vivifying presence of Vivien Leigh (replacing original lady Jessica Tandy as the perennially preoccupied Blanche DuBois), is one of the most revered of all stage-to-film translations, something that's imbued pursuers of the stage Streetcar with both hope ("Look how great it can be") and despair ("It will never be that good again").
Both feelings are accurate: No stage production is likely to match the untamed, dangerous sexual energy of the film, or the fierce battles it depicts between the high-bred-but-falling Blanche and her nowhere-to-go-but-up brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. But even so, any new mounting can succeed on its own terms as long as it's true to the material and its own unique convictions. If it will never be the movie, it will at least be Streetcar.
That never proves to be the case here. Hall's production hits all the notes in Williams's dissonant symphony about the human spirit, but makes no real music of its own. Like Blanche, who habitually turns off or modifies the shading of lamps to control the perception of her vanishing youth, Hall is more obsessed with appearance than substance. We get, therefore, a creepy representative tenement set (the work of Robert Brill) that emphasizes the disconnect between what goes on inside and what transpires in the real world, and carefully focused lights (from Donald Holder) that always know just what to obscure in shadow and what to reveal clearly.
The play's characters are never illuminated quite as well. This production's Blanche, Natasha Richardson, is hearty and robust from her first moments onstage; Richardson gives fine line readings, but never appears lost at sea in a world she's can't adapt to, and never believably captures the soul of a woman who knows her best days are behind her. Whether playing with lights or sparking a dalliance with a young newspaper collector (the too-mature Will Toale), Richardson's Blanche never actually seems to be dwelling in a world of her own crippling creation.
But those illusions are critical; Blanche has little else. She's departed from her English teaching job under somewhat mysterious circumstances to live with her sister Stella (Amy Ryan) and her husband Stanley (John C. Reilly). Blanche's attempts to recapture and glorify the past are distinctly at odds with Stanley's down-to-earth sensibilities (which involve, among other things, rowdy poker games), and even threaten to spoil a possibly healthy relationship with Stanley's Army buddy Mitch (Chris Bauer), who gets dragged into Blanche's web of deceit.
If Richardson's head is never sufficiently in the clouds, Ryan and Bauer give appropriately grounded performances that come closest to matching their roles' requirements. Ryan is thoughtful, even mature, and makes Stella a devoted maternal figure for Blanche, and a respite from Stanley's brutishness; Bauer begins strong and slowly collapses, emotionally and physically, as Blanche's constant consternation pushes him to the brink and beyond.
It's Reilly, however, who best typifies this Streetcar. In appearance, manner, and voice, he's as far removed from Brando as is imaginable, every bit the Neanderthal Blanche decries him as. (At one point, he stands clutching a radio as though it's a boulder he's about to use to kill his prey. Which isn't that far off the mark.) But for Reilly, Stanley is first and foremost a tired businessman, the kind likely to snap if he's interrupted while reading the paper after a tough day at work, and who has no real interest in sex.
Thus, Stanley's chemistry with Stella is perfunctory, his stated desire to make noisy love to her (impossible with Blanche around) only a tacit promise and not an urgent need. His distaste for Blanche and her retreats into fantasy register as equally passionless, and are portrayed by Reilly as only mild (if loud) annoyance. This smothers the story's raging fires, and renders the titanic Blanche-Stanley clashes of wills inconsequential; their confrontations are pallid, and they result in the least convincing sexual assault scene I've ever seen onstage.
This production more effectively relates to its material than did two other
recent Williams offerings on Broadway, The Glass Menagerie this season and
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof last year. But as cast and played, this production
has less in common with Williams than The Honeymooners, though Reilly, in
addition to being no Marlon Brando, is no Jackie Gleason. Still, it's easy
to imagine his Ralph Kramden-like Stanley bellowing, "To the moon, Blanche!"
That would be welcome - it would mean that something about this A Streetcar
Named Desire could get off the ground.