The ceiling fans spin lazily in the cramped New Orleans apartment of Stanley and Stella Kowalski, the American theater's most celebrated blue-collar couple. Their languid movement is one of the speedier aspects of the Roundabout Theatre Company's slow, almost stately revival of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," which opened Tuesday at Studio 54.
This nearly three-hour production of Williams' classic 1947 drama, reverentially directed by Edward Hall, is a curiously passionless affair, missing much of the play's sensuality and even some of its poetry. Despite the marquee value of Natasha Richardson as Blanche DuBois, Williams' desperate Southern belle, and John C. Reilly as Stanley, her lower-class nemesis, the evening rarely catches fire, even when the two protagonists are battling each other on stage.
That battle includes plenty of brute force but not much sexual tension. Reilly's Stanley is a crude, rude fellow, but the actor's plain, beefy features make one wonder why Blanche is strangely attracted to her brother-in-law. There's not much mystique in Reilly's performance, although he certainly has the lung power to bellow Stanley's more belligerent outbursts.
What's missing is the magnetism that marked Marlon Brando’s legendary performance as Stanley, indelibly preserved in the 1951 movie version. Admittedly, Brando is a tough act to follow, but in steering Reilly so totally away from Stanley's sensuality, Hall has diminished the play's impact.
"Streetcar" celebrates the inevitable conflict between the ethereal and the everyday. Blanche, a high school English teacher, is a poetic woman, battered by life. She has lost the family's Mississippi plantation, destroyed her own marriage to a sensitive young man and, finally, found her way to Louisiana and what she hopes will be the security of her sister Stella's home.
Yet Richardson's Blanche is more flinty than fragile, displaying a steeliness not usually found in this vulnerable woman, whose mental state is rapidly unraveling. The actress excels at that disintegration. She captures Blanche's descent into madness with a dramatic intensity that matches the determination that can be found in the rest of her performance.
"Streetcar" is Williams' most lyrical play, filled with imagery almost musical in nature. Most of those verbal arias are given to Blanche, but Richardson recites them with a hard-edged practicality that robs the language of much of its richness.
The play's two main supporting players have been expertly cast. Amy Ryan brings a sweet-tempered generosity to the role of Stella, Blanche's put-upon sister torn between her sibling and her husband. And Chris Bauer exudes a genuine likability as Mitch, a mama's boy and Blanche's would-be suitor - until he learns about her past life in Mississippi.
The give-and-take between Blanche and Mitch on their initial date is the evening's most touching scene. It's gently humorous, a quality that both Richardson and Bauer disarmingly mine.
Hall spreads the production across the wide Studio 54 stage, and designer Robert Brill has created a particularly atmospheric environment of wrought-iron staircases for the play's florid French Quarter setting. It's too bad more of that floridness couldn't have found its way into Hall's unfortunately off-the-track "Streetcar."
Edward Hall's revival of Tennessee William's "A Streetcar Named Desire" captures an explosive quality Stanley Kowalski's wife, Stella, describes this way:
"When men are drinking and playing poker, it's always a powder keg."
And if their two-room apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans is indeed a tinderbox, the arrival of Stella's destitute sister, Blanche, can only be seen as the addition of something combustible.
With John C. Reilly as Stanley and Natasha Richardson as Blanche, the production amply conveys the play's cruel, sardonic humor.
There is often a tendency to make Blanche a prisoner of her Illusions, helpless in her struggle with a brutal adversary. But there is plenty of evidence that Blanche knows what she is doing.
In this test of wills, Blanche is clearly Stanley's equal.
Reilly may be the crude "Polack" she constantly calls him, operating on instinct and brute force, but Richardson's Blanche relies on the power of her imagination.
Life may have sent her devastating blows, but like an animal refusing to submit to a mightier predator, she wins our admiration for the sassy resilience she uses to tease and rile her bewildered foe. Richardson conveys a constant sense of Blanche reinventing herself.
Like a master of one of the Asian martial arts, she uses her own sensuality to combat Stanley's. Even though the play's descriptions of the streetcar clattering through the Quarter have an ironic edge, the final title -Williams originally called it "The Poker Game" - suggests a vulnerability that none of the characters demonstrates.
Amy Ryan as Stella and Chris Bauer as Mitch, Stanley's Army buddy and Blanche's sometime suitor, both have an animal quality similar to the pair in the main event. So does Kristine Nielsen as Eunice, the upstairs neighbor.
It gives the play a relentlessness that becomes enervating.
Moreover, Stanley's ultimate conquest of Blanche does not suggest the defeat of an older, more beautiful, more delicate order but simply the assertion of greater power.
Robert Brill's set evokes the decaying allure of the French Quarter as well as the cramped, dispiriting quality of the Kowalskis' apartment. Donald Holder's lighting enhances the play's shifting moods. William Ivey Long's costumes have '40s charm, with wonderfully exotic touches for Blanche.
John Gromada's jazzy music, heartily sung by Wanda L. Houston, adds to the raucous feeling of the production.
Hall may have missed the tenderness Williams feels for both Blanche and Stanley, but there's no doubt that his production reinvigorates this extraordinarily powerful play.
Controversy will doubtlessly swirl around Edward Hall's striking staging of Tennessee Williams' "A Street Named Desire," which opened last night at the Roundabout Theatre's handsomely refurbished Studio 54.
For once it will not be the play's heroine Blanche DuBois - here, the luminously brilliant Natasha Richardson - who demands the celebrated "kindness of strangers," and maybe even critics.
Rather, it's the eccentric, counter-intuitive casting of John C. Reilly as Stanley Kowalski, a part originated by Marlon Brando on Broadway and in Elia Kazan's movie version.
Reilly is about as unlike Brando as SpongeBob, and at first glance would seem to be better suited to the role of his pal Mitch, the play's middle-age mother's boy.
But Hall obviously wanted a working-class lug instead of a sexual stud -and Reilly is a combat-scarred, rough and touchy Stanley, whose performance reflects Hall's deliberate emphasis on the gritty and realistic elements of the classic "Streetcar."
Of course, however interesting or surprising the Stanley, any production of "Streetcar" finally rests on the tremulous shoulders of its Blanche.
Richardson (daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and granddaughter of Sir Michael) is a heaven-sent Blanche – a role she seems to have been born to play.
Williams has envisaged the part as some last-ditch refugee from dreams of a probably dubious Southern grandeur who has been thrown out of her job as a high school English teacher by an ignominious sex scandal.
Now, with the ancestral home lost to debt and taxes, the genteel Blanche, penniless, and nervily drifting towards alcoholism and madness, descends upon her sister Stella and her violent, working-class husband Stanley Kowalski, in their shabby one-bedroom apartment in New Orleans' French Quarter.
From Richardson's theatricalized yet tentative entrance, her hair lank with heat, her hands almost murmuring in alcoholic tremors verging on Parkinson's, her manner a mix of the shy, the sensuous and the frankly sensual, this is a great, extraordinarily credible and moving Blanche.
After her first meeting with the red-necked Stanley, she remarks to her sister: "The only way to live with a man like that is to go to bed with him." For this particularly sexy Blanche, that revealing remark does not appear to come out of left field.
Williams' play is itself carefully poised between ashes and diamonds, between that awful reality its fragile heroine, Blanche, finds hard to bear, and the fugitive magic she is forever chasing.
Reilly's crazy, unpredictable violence forces Stella (a beautifully subtle and unusually touching Amy Ryan) to be convincingly torn between her grand obsession with Stanley and her fearful concern for her disturbed sister, teetering toward insanity.
This is a fine production of a great play.
Somebody has to tell Blanche DuBois, who is having her latest nervous breakdown at the theater at Studio 54, that she really doesn't need to worry so much. You know all that ducking from harsh lighting and fretting about her faded beauty that she's famous for?
Well, as incarnated by a truly radiant Natasha Richardson in the production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" that opened last night, Miss DuBois appears as pretty, dewy and healthy as a newly ripened, unbruised peach. Let them bring on those naked light bulbs, Blanche honey. You look marvelous.
As to Blanche's anxieties about her brutish, sexually magnetic brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, she can put her mind to rest there, too. John C. Reilly is portraying Stanley in Edward Hall's revival for the Roundabout Theater Company of Tennessee Williams's 1947 masterwork, and Mr. Reilly seems neither threatening nor - how to put this? - erotically overwhelming. True, he can be kind of loud sometimes. But you sense a real mensch beneath the bluster. Imagine Karl Malden playing Ralph Kramden in "The Honeymooners." That's our Stanley, as Mr. Reilly presents him.
So now that we've taken care of the problems that were causing such an unnecessary uproar in the squalid Kowalski household in New Orleans, why don't we all go out and have a friendly beer together? Because without credible conflict and crisis, there isn't much of a play.
All right, I'm exaggerating, but just a little. Mr. Hall's generally straightforward staging of "Streetcar" isn't the hazy, misguided mess that David Leveaux's current production of Williams's "Glass Menagerie" is. And Ms. Richardson, an actress of shining skills and unexpected insights, is always worth watching. But like Mr. Leveaux's "Menagerie," which features the movie stars Jessica Lange and Christian Slater in roles they were not born to play, this "Streetcar" suffers from fundamental mismatches of parts and performers.
The capricious gods of casting have not been kind to Tennessee Williams of late. This "Streetcar" follows last spring's production, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, which was most memorable for the perversely witty wiliness of its Blanche, played by Patricia Clarkson, and the matter-of-fact sensuality of Amy Ryan, who portrayed Stella, Blanche's sensible sister. Happily, Ms. Ryan is on hand for this production, too, and she again lends the show an anchor of authenticity that keeps it from drifting altogether into the clouds of unbelievability.
Yet for all her admirable efforts, Ms. Ryan's Stella has problems connecting with her hunk of meat of a husband, Stanley, and her fey sister. (This is not, for the record, Ms. Ryan's fault.) Worse, there's not a flicker of that destructive chemistry that is supposed to flare when the hoity-toity Blanche, who grew up on a grand Mississippi estate, drops in on Stella and Stanley's slovenly digs for an extended stay. Since "Streetcar" is all about what happens when worlds and psyches collide, this lack of emotional contact leaves the audience dry when it should be wet with anxious sweat and tears.
Though Ms. Ryan turns in the production's only fully integrated performance, it is nonetheless Ms. Richardson, who has more effectively harnessed her star power for the Roundabout in "Cabaret" and "Anna Christie," who makes this "Streetcar" worth consideration by hard-core Williams devotees. Of all the great lady basket cases of the theater - a roster that includes Ophelia, Strindberg's Miss Julie and Mary Tyrone (of "Long Day's Journey Into Night") - the ethereal but erotic Blanche DuBois may well be the hardest, er, nut to crack.
Ms. Richardson definitely has some tantalizing ideas about solving the puzzle. More than any other Blanche I've seen (except for Vivien Leigh's still definitive version in Elia Kazan's 1951 film), Ms. Richardson is not afraid to evoke her character's real and deep sexual hunger as well as her ambivalence about it.
A worldly, exhausted knowingness pervades this Blanche's dealings with the opposite sex. When she is testing her charms on Stanley, a handsome newspaper boy (Will Toale) or even Stanley's pal Mitch (Chris Bauer), with whom Blanche pretends to be a lady of virtue, she registers that she is fully aware that the final goal of such game-playing is good old fornication.
When she says to Stella that the only thing a man like Stanley is good for is bed, you sense that she is speaking from experience as well as from contempt. And when she drunkenly and lyrically recalls slipping out to meet soldiers at night in earlier years, her robe falls from her shoulders and her face assumes a self-hypnotized glaze that reconciles the carnal and the poetic.
The problem - and it is, let's face it, a really big problem - is that this Blanche never seems all that vulnerable. Ms. Richardson has a couple of moments of searing, outraged pain, as when Blanche describes her young husband's suicide. But her means of signaling imminent nervous collapse is to make her voice and hands tremble, and these vibrations often feel artificially switched-on. And Ms. Richardson's uncannily fresh face does not bear the marks of suffering.
Mr. Reilly, so brilliant in Sam Shepard's "True West" and the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, would have been perfect as the awkward, gentlemanly Mitch, a role he has played elsewhere. But while Stanley does not have to be a beauty like the young Marlon Brando, who created the part, he does need to exude strong sexual promise and menace, neither of which is in Mr. Reilly's goofy portrait of him. The deep-voiced Mr. Bauer, who portrays Mitch here, comes closer to being harshly animalistic, like a redneck out of "Deliverance." This is not the way things should be.
Under the busy staging of Mr. Hall, a young British director on the rise and the son of the august Sir Peter, the dramatic timing often goes slack, even in crucial climactic moments like Blanche's rape and the final aborted fight between Mitch and Stanley.
Mr. Hall uses Robert Brill's two-tiered set (which bears a resemblance to that of the current "Menagerie" by Tom Pye) and the aisles of the theater to create one of those noisy, street-peopled mise-en-scènes in which a city becomes a main character. But the hubbub fails to distract from our awareness that there is a silence at the center of things, one that should be filled with the painful clang of clashing souls.
When Tennessee Williams unleashed Blanche DuBois nearly six decades ago, he surely had no idea how large her vain, neurotic ghost would loom over contemporary pop culture. Nowadays, women older than 30 - considerably older, in many cases - who remain obsessed with snaring men and generally maintaining their sexual allure are the focus of everything from glossy magazines to hit TV shows.
Few would confuse the witty, versatile actress Natasha Richardson with such a creature, which is one of the factors that makes her portrayal of Blanche in the new Roundabout Theatre Company revival of A Streetcar Named Desire (* * * out of four) so intriguing. However beleaguered or vulnerable her characters - among them Zelda Fitzgerald, Patty Hearst and Cabaret's Sally Bowies- Richardson has rarely given the impression of being either a pathological narcissist or fragile beyond repair.
But in Streetcar, which opened Tuesday at Broadway's Studio 54, she seems stripped of all vestiges of earthiness, empathy and common sense. Showing up at her sister Stella's house, emotionally and financially broken, this Blanche is a fluttering, preening mess - but purposefully so. Mining all the pathos and humor with which Williams painted his hopeless heroine, Richardson makes us feel for her without trying too hard to make us feel sorry for her. It's a brave, often funny and ultimately moving interpretation.
The performance likely to generate the most controversy, though, is John C. Reilly's as Blanche's brother-in-law and tormentor. As immortalized on stage and screen by the young Marlon Brando, Stanley Kowalski was a coarse, menacing hunk of brute male sensuality. Reilly's Stanley, in contrast, is ... well, coarse, but not quite so menacing - and certainly no hunk.
Yet Reilly's lack of conventional sex and the gee-whiz folksiness he conveys in calmer moments don't make him an unconvincing foil for the mannered, repressed Blanche. And his scenes with rising trouper Amy Ryan, who delivers another pitch-perfect performance as the much-put-upon Stella, offer a gritty naturalism that counters Blanche's frazzled fantasy world.
Director Edward Hall further emphasizes Blanche's inability to adapt to her surroundings by showing us Streetcar's New Orleans in all its grimy glory. Fans turn languidly, booze and cigarettes are in plentiful supply and bawdy-looking women with blaring gospel voices wail between scenes, lest we forget that the play isn't set in a Scandinavian monastery.
Granted, Williams' material generally isn't known to inspire subtle approaches. And artful nuances are provided by the actors under Hall's guidance, among them Chris Bauer, who lends some relief from all the tempestuous doings as the seemingly benign loser who courts Blanche.
In the end, of course, Streetcar is Blanche's vehicle - and fortunately, it's in capable hands.