Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 22, 2012
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Emily Mann. Set design by Eugene Lee. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Edward Pierce. Sound design by Mark Bennett. Fight direction by Rick Sordelet. Vocal and dialect coach Beth McGuire. Hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Cast: Blair Underwood, Nicole Ari Parker, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Wood Harris, with Amelia Campbell, Matthew Saldívar, Rosa Evangelina Arredondo, Carmen de Lavallade, Aaron Clifton Moten, Jacinto Taras Riddick, Count Stovall.
Mann, who worked with its playwright, Tennessee Williams, during his final years, has insisted in interviews that Williams entertained the concept of all-black productions of his seamiest and steamiest play as far back as the 1950s (it opened on Broadway in 1947). In one sense, it's not hard to see why: As the setting for this examination of how one increasingly rickety woman is brought down to Earth (and nearly put under it) by her brutish brother-in-law is the mega–melting pot of New Orleans, African Americans fit naturally into milieu. And certainly the questions of identity with which the play grapples are equally relevant to people of any country or culture.
Yet unlike with the Debbie Allen–directed all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof four years ago (which shared some of this production's key producers), Mann's version of this approach has the side-effect of reducing this play's more complex palette of circumstances and emotions to one centered entirely on skin pigmentation. This isn't because of race, but because Mann has delivered something that works on the surface, but usually feels more like it's “inspired by” Williams rather than an as-is presentation of the script.
This is not to say there have been a lot of textual changes. The name of a restaurant some characters patronize has been swapped out in favor of a more racially appropriate one. And the last name of the lead male character, Stanley Kowalski, has been deleted entirely, along with all references to his heritage (Polish) that might not jibe so comfortably with a black actor. Otherwise, this is technically the original play, and these minor alterations don't directly affect the plot of how Blanche Du Bois (Nicole Ari Parker), in from the country to visit her sister Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) for the summer, rubs Stanley (Blair Underwood) the wrong way often enough that he responds by rubbing out her spirit.
But A Streetcar Named Desire is about much more than that. Like so many of Williams's plays, it views the Old South as its own fabulous invalid: constantly dying, and taking down all those around it. Blanche, who's run out of money and had to sell off what remained of the family's once-estimable homestead, is a last gasp of the old ways, and Stanley the new that are unwittingly determined to put them down. The prim, proper, and refined woman (well, at least deceptively so) falling prey to the urban animal is a representation of the disintegration of a very real part of United States history that Williams viewed as climaxing in this era. Without it, this great play becomes only a good one, its deep exploration of America becoming shallow. It's this element that Mann and her cast have failed to capture. (Though it's worth mentioning that her approach is, overall, far more successful than Allen's suffocatingly comedic one.)
Parker speaks her lines in a lovely, appropriate lilt, looks convincing in her too-grandiose costumes (designed by Paul Tazewell), and possesses the beauty she needs to sell the role. But Blanche's illusory sense of self-import is missing. There's no hint of her notion of being elevated above the dregs into which circumstances have thrust her, and that makes her prettiness more like posing than the necessary cry for help that so annoys Stanley and so attracts the good-hearted but naïve Mitch (Wood Harris).
A similar problem grips Underwood. Though he's a magnetic onstage presence, he never taps the core of what makes Stanley so violently irresistible. Underwood projects a sense of constant perturbation, but hardly seems less refined than Blanche — he's just a bit more in touch with his negative feelings. You never really believe, as you need to for the story to function, that Stanley and Blanche are the matter and antimatter that annihilate everything around them when they invade each other's safe zones.
Although the four leads act their roles with conviction, the lack of chemistry and stakes between them makes for a chilly evening. Heat cannot even be applied externally, as Mann's establishment of the outside world is no better. Her French Quarter is inert, motionless except during the occasional scene change (when the zest is limited to a tiny strip of downstage space). These qualities are likewise reflected in Eugene Lee's set, a boring, too-traditional structure that looks too bright (the lights are by Edward Pierce), sturdy, and well-kept to offend Blanche's rarefied sensibilities, and we see and sniff little of the simmering city beyond. The muted-trumpet vividness of the locale is entrusted entirely to composer Terence Blanchard, whose melty blues score catches nicely in the ear, but stops short of energizing the action.
Both Blanchard and Mann have apparently assumed that A Streetcar Named Desire does not require any help to alternately float and sock you in the gut. That may be true on the page. In performance, however, the careful attention to the minutest facets is no less important than on a portrait or a statue. Maybe Mann has succeeded in proving for Broadway audiences that this is yet another classic play that can transcend race. But by sacrificing its richer messages and more intriguing dramatic nuances, she hasn't made anyone onstage seem like they're living in Williams's real, urgent world.