In the most famous public-transportation instructions in contemporary dramatic literature, Blanche DuBois is told to take a streetcar named Desire, transfer to one called Cemetary, ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields.
The imagery is not terribly subtle, but at least Tennessee Williams laid out the itinerary of his play quite clearly. In these instructions are the metaphoric concerns and - considering they lead Blanche to a slum - even the sardonic humor that shape "A Streetcar Named Desire."
I don't know how the transport routes in New Orleans have changed in the 45 years since the play was written, but the "Streetcar" that grinded and squeaked its way into town last night does not make so imaginative or colorful a journey. It takes you straight to the mall.
Ineptly cast and crudely directed, this production looks like a bunch of clean-cut suburban kids putting on a show.
The play was written in a time when Desire was dangerous - even if you used condoms. The precincts of propriety were carefully delineated. To step outside them was to risk disaster. All this is quite foreign in the post-Freudian world, where no proprieties exist and the fulfillment of desire is considered therapeutic.
To go back into Blanche's world requires a sense of the fragility and delicacy of life no one in this production has, particularly Jessica Lange, who plays Blanche.
Instead of showing us a woman making her final brave attempt at staking a claim on reality, Lange shows us a woman who is defeated from her first entrance. Blanche is a woman who prizes her imagination. After the years of burying all her relatives, of losing Belle Reve, the family plantation, of suffering numerous indignities not all of her own making, Blanche's survival is a kind of miracle. She is not one to let the harshness of reality stand in her way, until she has absolutely no choice.
Lange, however, seems too depressed for fantasy, too comatose to have much contact with her emotions, not to mention ours. Though she has a few moments of hysterical release, her portrayal is chillingly monotonous and lifeless, as if she were literally catatonic. She speaks in a lugubrious style, as if she were performing grudgingly for an elocution teacher, occasionally dropping into a lower register that only enhances our sense of The Zombie From Belle Reve.
Although Alec Baldwin captures the humor of Stanley Kowalski, he seems quite boyish, and, considering his constant display of his impressive torso, oddly unsexy. When, near the end, he carries Blanche to bed, declaring it is a date they have had from the beginning, it makes no sense. There has not been a spark of electricity between them, no sense of two animals taking each other's measure before lunging forward.
Amy Madigan plays Blanche's sister Stella as if she were a cracker. The DuBois girls were shabby genteel, not poor white trash. Timothy Carhart is too rugged looking to play Mitch, a mama's boy. He affects shyness, but his courtship of Blanche should be sadly comic, even poignant, not, as it is here, mystifying.
The set has no poetry, the sound effects are intrusive, the pacing deadly. This "Streetcar" goes nowhere all too slowly.
To judge from the widely distributed advertisement for the new staging of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," showing, in a publicity shot quite remote from the actual production, Alec Baldwin burying his ample and aggressive nose in Jessica Lange's ample and ecstatic bosom, the play is about sex and passion.
It isn't, and luckily Gregory Mosher's staging, which opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater last night, shrewdly recognizes that it is really about dreams, generosity, power and those differences of culture and expectation which alienate people from people.
It is 45 years since Williams' "Streetcar" first rode triumphantly into town driven by Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando and director Elia Kazan, and those years have done nothing but confirm the play's position as one of the few indisputable classics of the 20th century. If nothing else, it speaks to this century's sense of dislocation and loss - the age of monsters in a sea of reason.
Mosher's staging - with its exquisitely suggestive setting by Ben Edwards, itself paying subtle tribute to Jo Mielziner's original - is conventional but poetic, underlining the play's motive themes but never over-emphasizing them. There is a crisp beauty in such reserve, and it is totally honest to the play.
And the performances match Mosher's perception of the play as a tragedy of manners; they are understated, infinitely well-modulated and in keeping with their own time and our present awareness of it. "Streetcar" is a period piece and Mosher, Lange, Baldwin and their colleagues never let us forget it.
The background of a nation stirring from a war and a depression, the impact of multi-ethnic blue-collar America upon a partially dispossessed middle class, and a totally new confusion about both gender and sexuality - questioning woman's role in both workplace and bedroom - all of this helps to provide the landscape for Williams' figures.
Into this landscape walks the frail, rueful, trusting shape of Blanche DuBois, a woman in flight from her past and herself, to be perhaps fatally confronted by the brutal truth of Stanley Kowalski. It is an uneven struggle, which, of course, Blanche wins on points, always being able to depend on the kindness of referees, critics and other audiences.
It is in recognizing this outcome - with Blanche walking through the door with the surviving dignity of a broken queen and Stanley rising guiltily to his feet from his poker game like a whipped cur - that Mosher shows his brilliance, and true understanding of a play quite commonly misunderstood.
Lange - making her Broadway debut and bearing the weight of comparison with all the Blanches, including Vivien Leigh's wrapped in celluloid, that have gone before - starts as uncertain as a fawn, her prickly gentility and nervy hands suggesting little sustaining energy.
But as the play proceeds, she assumes control, in quick cinematic-style takes, and by the end she has become a new and wanly vivid Blanche, the perfect contradiction of an outsider in an inside world.
Baldwin is just as good and, if anything, more unconventional. His almost sympathetic Stanley, rather pudgy (he seems to have put on weight for the part), is unattractive, brutal, aggressive but quite low on sexual energy. (That famous line "We've had this date with each other from the beginning" rings oddly false.) But this vulgarian Stanley is also a victim - note that while he is still taunted as a "Polack," Mosher cuts Stanley's own use of "greaseball" - of a society he is trying to come to terms with.
Williams' play is actually anything but a two-hander, for Stella, Blanche's sister and Stanley's wife, whom she has come to stay with in this ramshackle New Orleans apartment, and Mitch, Stanley's best friend who as a bashful suitor proves Blanche's possible escape route from her encircling past, are also vital to the play's careful design.
Amy Madigan's Stella proves a virtuoso performance - even extending to her exaggeratedly tearful curtain calls - which while spirited and the kind almost calculated to attract Tony attention also at times tends to unbalance the play. Timothy Carhart's Mitch, on the other hand, perfectly offsets Stanley, and conveys a complexity of spirit and intent.
But, like the director, all four actors - caught in Williams' odd and compelling game of "seven-card stud" - master the mixture of overblown but true poetry and psychological realism which provides the play with its own pungent perfume, a sense of roses in a battered world, compassion for love in a hot climate, and for rickety streetcars destined down blind alleys. Here is a great play in a staging definitive for our own time.
Depending on your feelings about "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "A Streetcar Named Desire" is either the greatest or second-greatest play ever written by an American. But actors have to be half-mad to star in Tennessee Williams's drama on Broadway, where the glare is unforgiving and the ghosts of Elia Kazan's original 1947 production, as magnified by the director's classic 1951 film version, are fierce. Stacked against Marlon Brando, the first Stanley Kowalski, and Jessica Tandy and Vivien Leigh, the stage and screen originators of Blanche DuBois, who can win?
The exciting news from the Ethel Barrymore Theater, where Gregory Mosher's new Broadway staging of "Streetcar" arrived last night, is that Alec Baldwin has won. His Stanley is the first I've seen that doesn't leave one longing for Mr. Brando, even as his performance inevitably overlaps his predecessor's. Mr. Baldwin is simply fresh, dynamic and true to his part as written and lets the echoes fall where they may. While his Stanley does not in the end ignite this play's explosive power, that limitation seems imposed not by his talent but by the production surrounding him and, especially, by his unequal partner in unhinged desire, Jessica Lange's Blanche DuBois.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Baldwin imbues Stanley with an animalistic sexual energy that sends waves through the house every time he appears onstage. The audience responds with edgy delight from when he first removes his shirt and unself-consciously uses it to wipe the New Orleans sweat from his armpits and torso. Yet the actor's more important achievement is to bring a full palette to a man who is less than a hero but more than a brute. Cruel as Mr. Baldwin's Stanley is, and must be, he comes across as an ingenuous, almost-innocent working stiff until Blanche provokes him to move in for the kill. His Stanley is funny in a post-adolescent, bowling buddy way as late as the rape scene, when he fondly emulates a cousin who was a "human bottle-opener." Even the famous interlude in which he screams for his wife, Stella (Amy Madigan), becomes pitiful as well as harrowing when Mr. Baldwin, a fallen, baffled beast, deposits himself in a sobbing heap at the bottom of a tenement's towering stairs.
Not the least of the actor's achievements is to remind us why Williams's play is so much more than the sum of its story of Stanley's battle with the sister-in-law who invades his and Stella's shabby French Quarter flat. "I am 100 percent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth," Stanley rightly bellows at one point, after Blanche has taunted him one time too many for being a "Polack." He fills the play with the America of big-shouldered urban industrialism, of can-do pragmatism, of brute strength and vulgar humors: the swaggering America that believes, as Stanley paraphrases Huey Long, that "every man is a king." Mr. Baldwin makes it easy to see how Blanche and the ambivalent, self-destructive author for whom she is a surrogate could find this simian, menacing man mesmerizing even as he embodies the very forces on a "dark march" to destroy them and their romantic old America of decaying plantations, kind strangers and "tenderer feelings."
That destruction, which is the inexorable tragedy of "Streetcar," remains untapped here because Ms. Lange's Blanche leaves the play pretty much as she enters it: as a weepy, uncertain yet resourceful woman who has endured some hard knocks rather than suffered a complete meltdown into madness. A terrific film actress who deserves credit for courageously making her Broadway debut in the most demanding of roles, Ms. Lange can easily be faulted for her lack of stage technique, including a voice that is not always audible and never sounds like that of a lapsed Mississippi belle. But she works harder and more intelligently than all three movie stars put together across the street in "Death and the Maiden," and the real problem with her Blanche is less a matter of deficient stage experience than of emotional timidity.
"I don't want realism, I want magic!" goes one of Blanche's signature lines, but Ms. Lange insists on providing realism. She's not a moth facing disintegration as she flies into the flame but a spaced out, softer-spoken Frances Farmer in her cups. The diaphanous web of artifice that surrounds this heroine, the gauzy lies and fantasies that cloak her as surely as her paper Chinese lantern disguises her room's naked light bulb, never materializes.
Without them, there are no layers of personality for Mr. Baldwin's Stanley to rip through and no chance for the audience to be shattered by the drama of a woman being stripped of illusion after illusion until there is nothing left but the faint, bruised memory of an existence torn between the poles of gentility and desire. In Ms. Lange's resilient characterization, which siphons off much of Blanche's fragility and sorrow into an omnipresent and much-twisted handkerchief, the heroine's wry English teacher's humor survives but the traumatic soliloquies, from the account of her husband's suicide to her late confession of promiscuity, seem thought out rather than felt.
Mr. Mosher, an unerring director of David Mamet's plays, does not seem to be at his best directing women, in "Streetcar" anyway. Ms. Madigan, whose stage work has generally been as accomplished as her screen appearances, captures Stella's Southern gregariousness but not the erotic exuberance and divided loyalties of a young, pregnant wife caught between her husband and her sister. As Mitch, the stolid suitor Blanche sees as a protector, Timothy Carhart still seems to be playing the coarse redneck of "Thelma and Louise." He is physically wrong for the role and anachronistic in tone and appearance.
What Mr. Mosher does achieve in his production is an impressive display of a director's stagecraft. Except for the placement of intermission, this "Streetcar" is meticulous in its efforts to conform to the well-documented Kazan original, which played the same stage almost 45 years ago. Ben Edwards's brooding and decaying indoor-outdoor set, Kevin Rigdon's poetic lighting, the floating fragments of music and even the questionable dropping of the curtain at the end of each scene all respect tradition, to the cautious point of treating "Streetcar" as a museum piece.
While this approach does not permit many surprises, it does allow an audience to appreciate the baroque architecture and verdant language of a play that never ceases to fascinate, even in readings far inferior to this one. When the electric Mr. Baldwin is onstage, you can, for better and worse, imagine the bold new "Streetcar" that has been allowed to slip away.