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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
at the Broadhurst

SHORT OF ITS NAME
By JOANNE KAUFMAN

  Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker/ Ph: Ken Howard

According to the national weather service, temperatures in New Orleans this week are hovering in the low to mid 80s. Sad to report, things are considerably cooler onstage at the Broadhurst Theatre, site of a multiracial revival of Tennessee Williams’ Big Easy-set classic drama. Uneasy are the stars Nicole Ari Parker and Blair Underwood.

The sweltering conditions are much commented on, many beers are downed, many baths are taken as a way to cope with the merciless mercury. At least one notable body glistens with sweat – I'm talking about you, Mr. Underwood. A shirt is removed because it’s too darn sweltering –you again, Mr. Underwood. But the heat – a necessary Streetcar element, we can all agree – is as much illusion as anything conjured by the famously fantasy-spinning central character Blanche DuBois (Parker), whose arrival at the squalid apartment of her gentle sister Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Stella’s brutish husband Stanley Kowalski (Underwood) sets the play in motion.

And what a long visit it is: an endless loop of Blanche bathing, flirting, preening, condescending, demanding, re-filling her shot glass, re-decorating, re-packaging her history – until Stanley, in a callous act that presages his ultimate cruelty – buys his sister-in-law a one-way bus ticket back home. Forgive the audience members who find the Greyhound pass a big temptation. As directed by Emily Mann, this Streetcar is as drawn-out as Blanche’s time with the in-laws.

Since the play's premier in 1947, with Jessica Tandy as Blanche, a fragile Southern flower whose loathing for reality is strong, whose grip on it is tenuous, there have been numerous revivals (never mind the many screen versions). Some productions have turned the high beams on the booze-swilling, desperation-dripping Miss DuBois; some have been weighted toward man-child Stanley. Some actresses have emphasized Blanche’s vulnerability, others her tensile strength. Very few have managed to do both.

This Streetcar is all about atmosphere. The lighting designer has worked overtime, there's a jazzy score by Terence Blanchard. And in keeping with recent revivals, Crescent City Street life has been made part of the mix. The highly stylized funeral procession that passes by the Kowalski apartment at one point is undoubtedly meant to serve as foreshadowing. It’s really emblematic of a production that’s D.O.A.

For the record, the problem here has nothing to do with the decision to make this a multi-ethnic production. My son who had before seen Streetcar assumed that what he was seeing on stage was business as usual. So, no, this isn't about colorblind casting. It’s simply about the casting. The performers aren’t up to the challenges of the job. Parker’s is a by-the-numbers performance. We get a little fragility here, a little hauteur here, a bit of sensuality there; she plays at Blanche without playing Blanche. For his part, Underwood as the elemental Stanley is peeved; when pushed he’s aggravated. Dangerous? Doesn’t seem to be in his toolbox.

The play’s horrific climax here seems decidedly anti-climactic. “We’ve had this date from the beginning,” Stanley tells Blanche. Someone must have forgotten to put it on the calendar.

 


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