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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
at the Broadhurst

DREAM AND DEGRADATION
By JESSICA BRANCH

  Wood Harris and Nicole Ari Parker/ Ph: Ken Howard

However physically and psychologically frail the character of Blanche DuBois may be, she generally towers over every production of A Streetcar Named Desire, filtering the action – at least early on – through the delicate fantasies she uses to disguise the sordid realities of her life. And such is the caliber of the great actresses who have played Blanche over the years, that her perspective dominates the drama, even as her illusions are stripped away. Enter the latest Broadway revival of Streetcar. Directed by Emily Mann, this production takes a different approach by emphasizing the real world over the ruins of Belle Reve, but works all the better for doing so.

The Tennessee Williams classic opens in the French Quarter in 1952, where Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) is living happily with her studly husband Stanley (Blair Underwood) when the close couple receives an unexpected visit from Stella’s Southern belle schoolteacher sister Blanche (Nicole Ari Parker). Shocked at the squalor of the Quarter, the squeamish Blanche seeks to pretty things up with paper lanterns, fancy clothes, and fantastical tales of her past and her suitors, much to her pragmatic brother-in-law’s disgust. He’s even less impressed by the fact that she’s let the family estate slip through her fingers (and his). When he starts to check up on her elegant tales, what he exposes threatens to ruin the future life she’s planning with his friend Mitch (Wood Harris) and maybe her tenuous hold on reality itself.

The ostensible novelty in this production is its multiethnic casting, which seems appropriate for the New Orleans milieu. But what seems more original – and apparently more provocative – is the earthy, realistic interpretation of the play. Parker’s Blanche is less a fragile, fading flower than a woman who’s determinedly delusional in the face of her family’s many deaths – her madness seems more like a survival strategy than just sickness. Just so, Underwood is equally unwilling to turn Stanley into a travesty – he plays him as a man has a hot temper and a hard head, but not as the oaf Blanche would make him out to be – making the final act of violence between them in a strange way Stanley’s acquiescence to Blanche’s fantasies, which he’s always resisted. Rubin-Vega is a little stiff in her first few scenes, but ends up as a stellar Stella and, in a sense, the real heart of the play.

When the characters aren’t weighed down with hyperbole, the humor that Williams wrote into the script shines through, as does the inexorability of Blanche’s downfall. With sultry music by Terence Blanchard and a smart, atmospheric set by Eugene Lee, this production has a grittier, gutsier, more grounded feel than most – and the Quarter and its inhabitants have an independent existence apart from Blanche’s fever dream of her sister’s degradation. With Stanley played as less of an ogre and Blanche as less of a shrinking violet, the underlying strengths of the play emerge. Stella’s story – and her dilemma, caught between conflicting loyalties – comes to the fore, giving her final betrayal of Blanche additional nuance and suggestiveness. And while we’re never less than sympathetic toward this Blanche, we're also not as steamrollered by her skewed sense of reality – and the result is both refreshing and effective.

 


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