There’s an inherent challenge in reviewing a classic play like A Streetcar Named Desire. Why is it being resurrected now? What’s new about it? How is it different from the original?
What’s new and different is the largely African American cast. I would guess that the reason it’s being presented now has to do with the success of the similarly multiracial Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, also produced by Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones.
There’s much to like in this production. I especially appreciate the atmosphere of the French Quarter of New Orleans, circa 1952. Director Emily Mann lets us feel the heat, the humidity, and the edge of violence permeating the air. A lonesome train whistle echoes the underlying longing of the characters, and has a slightly chilling effect. Eugene Lee’s set design is evocative; it’s easy to see why someone coming into this house for the first time would be taken aback by the shabbiness of the surroundings. By the same token, it’s obvious that people actually do live here, as evidenced by various knick-knacks, and a notably rather casual attitude towards repairing all that’s broken. I appreciate Paul Tazewell’s costume design, although I do think the gowns that are displayed should be a bit worse for the wear.
The story of Blanche Du Bois (Nicole Ari Parker), her sister Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega), and Stella’s husband Stanley (Blair Underwood) is familiar to most theater goers. Blanche, who is broke, out of a job as a teacher, and in a fragile mental state, comes to live with Stella, and finds that she can’t connect at all with the lower class Stanley. The apartment is tiny, and resentment turns to violence in the steamy New Orleans milieu. Blanche seems to find a kindred spirit with Stanley’s friend, Mitch (Wood Harris), but the moment of hope is fleeting.
Nicole Ari Parker is superb as Blanche, even though she’s obvious too young, too fresh, and too beautiful. Parker is such a stunner, it’s hard to imagine she’d ever have a problem attracting a man. Her elegance and sense of timing, not to mention her hypnotic, light hued eyes, make her a Blanche who commands attention and chivalry. She manages to convey the heart breaker she once was, as well as the frantic soul on the edge that she’s become. And her Louisiana accent, with its sugary singsong melody, is spot on. The small gestures Parker employs, like checking the glass to make sure it’s clean before she pours herself a drink, and touching Stan at unexpected moments, speak volumes about her Blanche.
We see a lovely, almost delicate attraction played out by Parker and Wood Harris, as Mitch. Harris is probably way too attractive to be Mitch; in fact, he’s a major hunk. But still, he ably portrays a man who desperately needs someone to share his life. We understand his devotion to his dying mother, and when he spies Blanche’s silhouette through the flimsy curtain that divides the cramped space, we feel his yearning. This symbiotic relationship between Blanche and Mitch, and our desire to see them happily together, makes the ending of the play even more tragic.
Blair Underwood’s Stanley, now called “Stan,” is stripped of the originally Polish heritage of the character. Underwood’s acting is full of passion and commitment, but he’s just too upscale, too outrageously handsome for the role. When he takes off his shirt, he displays a six pack which only comes from hours at the gym. This isn’t the body of a mid-century working man, and judging from the sighs of appreciation from the audience, the sight of his impressive torso takes everyone out of the moment. But when he calls up to Stella after manhandling her in a fight, his anguish is real, and he nails what has to be a difficult moment for any actor trying to make us forget the famous Brando rendition of the scene.
Worst miscast of all is Daphne Rubin-Vega, who is made of earthier stuff than any former Southern belle. It’s nearly impossible to believe she and Parker could be related, not only because of their physical differences, but also because she exhibits not in the least even a trace of refinement. A down-and-dirty Stella robs us of any idea that her sister might in fact be right about the vast difference between Stella’s background and Stanley’s humble origins.
My largest disappointment is that the luminous Carmen de Lavallade has only a tiny part in this production. She’s still radiant, even dressed down in a housedress and head kerchief, sporting unbecoming glasses.
One caveat: If you are sensitive to cigarette smoke, don’t sit in the first couple of rows. The constant smoking onstage helps create the ambiance of the setting, but it does filter down into the house.
I’m unsure to what degree we’re supposed to take literally the fact that people of color are the protagonists in this production. On the one hand, these actors could easily be Creole, and very possibly inhabiting the French Quarter. On the other, it’s pretty unlikely that they would have had a plantation in the family for generations. But then, there are many conundrums to be found in the Crescent City. After all, to quote a line from the play, “New Orleans isn’t like other cities.”
Photos by Ken Howard
A Streetcar Named Desire
235 West 44th Street
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.