Monday, April 23, 2012

A Streetcar Named Desire: A Cold Day in Elysian Fields

A Streetcar Named Desire* returns to Broadway welcoming a multi-ethnic cast but Emily Mann's lethargic direction and a weak ensemble fail to bring Tennessee William's rich play to life.  Each individual actor tried their best but the passion, torment, and rising drama was not to be found in this sluggish production. 

The classic story remains the same.  Schoolteacher, Blanche DuBois (Nicole Ari Parker) comes to New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Stella's new husband Stanley (Blair Underwood).  Blanche claims the family homestead is lost and must remain with Stella and Stanley well beyond the point that tensions develop between them.  Blanche is being politely wooed by Stanley's friend Mitch (Wood Harris) but Stanley puts an end to that romance when he finds out the truth about Blanche.

The ensemble did not have the chemistry or strength to bring the material together.   It seems from staging, performance and direction we are meant to know Blanche is a liar from beginning.  This undermines much of the dramatic tension. Without the push and pull of what is real and what are lies, it seems like the entire play is anticipation of the inevitable unveiling of her background but without any palpable tension.  Her drinking and lying end up awkwardly being played for laughs.  Sympathy for Blanche is practically non-existent here.

Nicole Ari Parker looks luminous as Blanche but did not effectively convey the full range of Blanche's various mental states in the play.  You feel no actual relationship between Stella (Daphne Ruben-Vega) and Blanche (Nicole Ari Parker).  There is no warmth, history or feeling between the two sisters.  But frankly, I did not believe there was a real relationship or heat between Stella and Stanley either.

Underwood is is striking performer and quite scary in this production (I'm pretty sure a pork chop got thrown somewhere into the rafters in one scene).  But the frisson between Stanley and Blanche was not there.  There was menace but not the sexual tension necessary to build to the violent conclusion of rape.

That said, I liked Wood Harris a lot.  He conveyed a sexually, frustrated but ultimately respectable Mitch struggling to court Blanche.  His pain was the most clear and direct. 

As for the rape scene, as one news outlet noted, there was some inappropriate audience interaction right before it during one performance.  I think this is emblematic of the tone problems of the show throughout.  The costume Stanley in this scene is laughable and regardless of Blair Underwood shirt-on or shirt-off it's an odd choice.  But the audience did not seem to entirely get what was happening on stage.  When the doctor finally comes to collect Blanche at the end, it is staged like a Keystone Cops scene.  When he offers her his hand, the audience I was with burst into laughter.

Whether audiences are familiar with the text or not, this production fails to set the right tone from the beginning.  I thought for a moment I was watching a sincere high school production of Streetcar.  Everyone was doing their best but it was as if no one actually understood the lines they were saying or their reasons for being there.  It is inevitable with that type of performance that the audience will not understand either. 

With these major problems, I am not surprised they seemed to have lost the audience for crucial, emotional scenes.  Between boredom and confusion, this production does not offer audience much besides some inappropriate laughter.

*I received a complementary ticket to the production.

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