In the end, Stanley will have his awful, violent revenge on Blanche. She will see it coming – she'll struggle, her eyes will go wide like a deer's and she'll try to bolt. But he'll get her and then he will surely break her. What the races are of the actors on stage is immaterial.
The new revival of Tennessee Williams' often brutal "A Streetcar Named Desire," which features African-Americans in the lead roles, opened Sunday at the Broadhurst Theatre as a reminder of the power of the writing.
An excellent ensemble cast – a fragile Nicole Ari Parker stars as the doomed Blanche, a swaggering Blair Underwood as Stanley, a spitfire Daphne Rubin-Vega as Stella and a laconic Wood Harris as Mitch – combines under taut directing from Emily Mann to create a fresh way to enjoy an iconic play.
The production – produced by many of the people behind the 2008 Broadway revival of Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" with an all-black cast – feels authentically New Orleans, thanks in no small part to city native Terence Blanchard's original up-tempo music.
Only a few cuts to the script have been necessary: out came Stanley's last name, the Polish-sounding Kowalski, and a bar's name was changed to one that wasn't segregated back in the 1950s. It is wonderfully freed from the classic 1951 Elia Kazan film with an undershirt-wearing Marlon Brando bellowing "Stella!"
A steaminess seems to hang over the stage, as actors fan themselves, remove clothes and even Edward Pierce's lighting seems hazy and hot, as if the sun itself was blasting through wooden planks in the French Quarter's bottom apartment.
Underwood's Stanley is a cocksure, man's man who is introduced throwing a bundle of meat at his pregnant wife. His Stanley has no problem putting his paws on his wife's face, yanking letters out of peoples' hands or undressing in public.
"You're simple, straightforward and honest, a little bit on the primitive side I should think," Blanche tells him. Later she tells her sister what she really thinks: "He acts like an animal, has an animal's habits! Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one! There's even something – subhuman – something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Yes, something – ape-like about him."
But Underwood also has gotten the sad, frustrated, attention-seeking Stanley down. When he screams for Stella in the scene at the end of Act 1, you feel his shame for what he's done – and he's also thankfully wearing a red T-shirt, not the white tank top of Brando.
Parker in real life is simply not faded enough to play Blanche – this is a woman stunning enough to stop traffic in Times Square – so her makeup and acting are especially needed to make her into a mannered, hyper-feminine, needy Southern belle. She comes through it powerfully and elegantly. It's a performance that could stop traffic.
Rubin-Vega plays her Stella with a hellcat lurking not too far below the surface, a woman who is used to her husband's violence, a little thrilled by the passion, and who also knows the storm of regret that envelops him afterward.
Harris' Mitch is laconic and smooth and delicious. The scene in which he finally sees Blanche under the naked night and is pitiless is great. Watching him quietly weep as Blanche is later taken away is heartbreaking.
And yet there are jarring times when these four seem to be each acting independently, as if they were following their own character arc without heed to the rest of the ballet. There's sometimes a jaggedness to the show when the slow boil of one character is interrupted by the angry screams of another that seemed to come from nowhere.
Eugene Lee's expressive set – two small rooms separated by a few curtains – adds to the claustrophobia that is inevitable when a couple is joined by an in-law with lots of luggage. To make matters worse, the sink is filthy, the wooden furniture is flaking paint and the slats in the window shade are smashed and uneven. When they play cards, the men must sit on crates. No wonder Blanche is pushed to the edge.
Costumes by Paul Tazewell are first rate, especially Blanche's white, frilly gowns and frocks. He's cleverly made some great shirts for Stanley by riffing off the character's love of bowling. Many in the audience clearly wanted Underwood to wear as little as possible and he often obliges, but never exploitatively.
At the end of the play, a broken Blanche, the woman who represents the Old South, utters one of the most self-evident lines in Williams' repertoire: "I'm anxious to get out of here – this place is a trap." She's right but the production definitely isn't – it's a joy that reminds us again how good Williams was.
Black actors playing Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski make “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Broadhurst Theatre automatically stand out.
Beyond nontraditional casting, the production has other distinctions.
Emily Mann’s direction dredges up humor that often remains dormant, and Eugene Lee’s realistically shabby set and Terence Blanchard’s jazzy music evoke the grit and groove of the French Quarter in New Orleans.
That, of course, is where Blanche (Nicole Ari Parker) disastrously seeks refuge with her sister Stella (an earthy and sensual Daphne Rubin-Vega, of “Rent”) and her husband Stanley (Blair Underwood).
Otherwise, Broadway’s latest take on Tennessee Williams’ story of a devastating clash of culture and class comes up adequate but unremarkable.
Fortunately, the 1947 Pulitzer Prize winner packs so much power and poetry that even an okay production brings some satisfaction.
Blanche, the delusional Southern belle barely getting by on illusions and half-truths, needs no introduction. Parker might. Her credits span TV (“Soul Food”) and film (“Remember the Titans”), but she’s not a household face or name. The actress goes big in her Broadway debut — Blanche is a huge and highly theatrical role — and has nice moments. Her far-off gaze and careful cadence fit a woman working to hold it together.
Another fine detail is how she often, as though by reflex, rests an elbow on Stanley, presumably a bit of muscle memory for Blanche who relies on the kindness of you-know-whats.
But Parker’s performance is ultimately too composed. She’s missing the crippling fragility of mind and spirit that makes Blanche throw off thrilling sparks.
As her nemesis, Underwood is at home on stage. He’s a strapping presence in his bowling shirts and satin robe that Stanley wears for special occasions.
In this multiracial version, Stanley has been relieved of his surname — Kowalski is never uttered. That isn’t missed as much as real intensity and animal magnetism in his characterization.
As a result Stanley and Blanche’s cage fight lacks scorching heat. Without that kind of energy “Streetcar” can’t run at its max but just rattle along.
If pumping up improved acting, Sylvester Stallone would have as many Oscars as Meryl Streep, and Channing Tatum would be playing Hamlet.
But sadly, bulging biceps and taut pecs aren’t enough to fill a role — something confirmed by Blair Underwood’s underwhelming performance in the new Broadway revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
You may remember Underwood from his days as a trim, sleek attorney on “L.A. Law.” Two decades later, the star is in fantastic, gym-toned shape. That’s where his take on Stanley begins and ends.
Stanley Kowalski — here stripped of his last name and Polish identity — arguably is Tennessee Williams’ most notorious male character: a hunk smoldering with sexual magnetism, and a nasty piece of work.
He forms one corner of a majorly screwed-up triangle with his pregnant wife, the earthy Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega), and Stella’s flamboyant older sister, Blanche (Nicole Ari Parker, from Showtime’s “Soul Food”) — who’s visiting the couple in their New Orleans shack.
Blanche, a former English teacher with a flimsy grasp on reality, is repelled by Stanley’s practical working-class boorishness.
But Stanley also needs to have a feral charm and a touch of insecure neediness — otherwise, it’s hard to see why he’d feel threatened by Blanche, or why Stella would stay with this wife-beater in wife-beaters.
Unfortunately, Underwood sticks to one note, and that’s brutish. Even then, it often feels as if we’re watching a fundamentally nice actor baring his teeth — and his chest — to look mean. Stanley’s rage at the world doesn’t come from deep inside.
This weakness throws Emily Mann’s otherwise decent production out of whack. Parker, in particular, deserves a better foil, because her take on Blanche feels fresh, especially in the first act.
Tall and lithe, this Blanche is less fading flower than resilient reed. You can tell she’s endured many storms by bending to the winds. Her sharp wits must have helped — she describes a trip to Miami as “an investment, thinking I’d meet someone with a million dollars” — and Parker earns her laughs.
Blanche’s relationship with Stanley’s friend Mitch also has a welcome melancholy edge. For once, she seems in control, especially since Wood Harris (drug kingpin Avon Barksdale in HBO’s “The Wire”) plays Mitch like a mama’s boy struck with puppy love.
All this unfurls nicely, swaying to the rhythm and menace of Terence Blanchard’s original score — the New Orleans setting is very present, and Mann even includes a jazz funeral, allowing distinguished dancer Carmen de Lavallade to strut her stuff.
The wheels come off in the second act, when Underwood recedes further into single-minded beastliness, and Parker isn’t as evocative with Blanche’s breakdown.
By the end, you’re left thinking, “Well, that was a fine show.” But “A Streetcar Named Desire” should be a lot more than just fine.
“The Poker Night” was once the working title for what would become Tennessee Williams’s most celebrated work. So perhaps it’s appropriate that a poker game provides one of the few moments approaching excitement in the torpid revival of the play that was renamed “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
That moment occurs early enough in Emily Mann’s production, which opened on Sunday night at the Broadhurst Theater, to fan hopes that the show might strike the occasional spark. Four manly men are sitting around a table in a sullen pool of light, studying their cards, swapping insults and looking as picturesque as those figures in the often-reprinted Thomas Hart Benton painting inspired by “Streetcar.”
And then — boom! — they’re on their feet yelling, looking as if they might tear out one another’s throats with their teeth. Testosterone has turned into nitroglycerin. And you can’t help agreeing when one of these fellows’ womenfolk says, “When men are drinking and playing cards, anything can happen.”
It comes in a flash, that explosion, and it probably wouldn’t stand out in most productions of “Streetcar.” I wouldn’t be lingering on it, except — help me here, I’m grasping at air.
You see, the more significant, subsequent action in that scene — a man starting to beat up his pregnant wife, the other men wrestling him down, a floridly feminine visitor aflutter with horror — has none of the spontaneity or urgency of that first eruption. Nor, I regret to say, does anything else in the play, including a rape that leads to the most heartbreaking nervous breakdown in American drama.
You may have read that most of the principal roles in this “Streetcar” have been cast with African-Americans, including Blair Underwood (best known for “L.A. Law” on television) as the brutish Stanley Kowalski and Nicole Ari Parker (the Showtime series “Soul Food”) as the breakable Blanche DuBois. Ms. Mann has said in interviews that Williams had always liked the idea of an African-American “Streetcar.”
Given the easygoing ethnic eclecticism of the New Orleans quarter in which the play is set, you could argue that such casting makes a certain sense, especially if you eliminate all nontracking references, like Stanley’s being Polish, as this version does. And after the commercial success of the 2008 production of an African-American “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” why shouldn’t the same approach be applied to “Streetcar”?
Heck, I wouldn’t care if all the performers were green and they called it “A Spaceship Named Desire,” if the acting were good enough. One of the advantages of theater, where metaphor reigns, is that it doesn’t have to be literal minded in the way film does. Part of the contract between any play and its audience is our willingness to make a leap of imaginative faith.
James Earl Jones is so unerringly on target playing a former president in the crackling Broadway revival of “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man” that I didn’t stop to think that a man of his color would never have been elected to this country’s highest office in the 1950s. And I was more than prepared to be seduced by Mr. Underwood and Ms. Parker, exceptionally attractive people who can fill a stage just by standing there.
But when the woman in the seat beside me started to nod off during the first act of this “Streetcar,” I didn’t have the heart to nudge her. Handsomely designed by a top-flight team — including Eugene Lee (set), Paul Tazewell (costumes) and Edward Pierce (lighting) — this “Streetcar” is mostly an exquisite snooze.
Allow me to say that, to their credit, the performers here don’t seem daunted by the ghosts of illustrious actors past. (Cate Blanchett’s devastating portrayal of Blanche in 2009 remains tattooed on my memory. And Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando’s definitive performances in the 1951 film are still very much with us, on screens small and large.) Mr. Underwood, Ms. Parker, Daphne Rubin-Vega (as Blanche’s sister, Stella) and Wood Harris (as Blanche’s suitor, Mitch) never give the impression of trying desperately to erase fond memories via outrageously stylized portraits.
On the contrary, they speak Williams’s lyrical prose in a fluid, conversational style. Often they exude the ease you associate with actors in long-running television series, for whom banter has become second nature. They sound so relaxed, in fact, that you can’t imagine that there’s ever much at stake — a marriage, financial solvency, sanity.
Ms. Parker’s Blanche registers as a lively, self-assured gal, accustomed to manipulating others with her feminine wiles. Sure, she’s a schemer and, on occasion, a liar. But so was Lucy Ricardo in “I Love Lucy.” And whenever Blanche was caught out in a fib — about her age, drinking habits or sexual past — the audience with which I saw the show chuckled indulgently.
But when Blanche says that her nerves are shot and that she’s at the end of a fraying tether, you figure it’s just another stratagem to get her way. No wonder her sister, Stella — Ms. Rubin-Vega done up to look like the pin-up girl Bettie Page — seems no snappish and resentful around her. And there’s never any question that Stella’s loyalties lie with her big lug of a husband, Stanley.
Mr. Underwood looks smashing and appears to have spent many hours at the gym of late. But mostly he comes across as your average overworked husband, understandably testy with that sister-in-law of his always hogging the bathroom. The primal sexual danger he embodies for Blanche surfaces only in flickers. As Stanley’s friend Mitch, Mr. Harris is most notable for his likable gangliness.
The one upside to this production is that you don’t have to interpret Blanche’s fate as tragic. When Miss DuBois is ushered offstage in the fabled final scene, you expect her soon to have that psychiatric doctor eating out of her hand and setting her up in style.
Of all the plays currently not begging to be revived in New York, the oft-seen "A Streetcar Named Desire" must be near the top of the give-it-a-rest list.
Of all the standard -- that is, white -- repertory that does not promise obvious opportunities for a black or multicultural re-envisioning, Tennessee Williams' 1947 masterwork, redolent with rotting Old Plantation shadows, would seem among the more resistant.
But director Emily Mann and Stephen C. Byrd, the producer responsible for Broadway's 2008 all-black "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," have put together a solid, credible, more aggressive than poetic "Streetcar" starring Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche DuBois and a glistening-buff Blair Underwood as Stanley.
In this production, Stanley -- the nemesis of fading civility most identified with Marlon Brando in his ripest 20's -- doesn't have a Polish last name because, obviously, he's not Polish.
But Underwood, at 47, impresses with both brutal animal beauty and the savvy of calculating humanity.
Parker ("Soul Food") brings layers of faded elegance and emotional hunger to Blanche, the visiting sister-in-law from hell and high living. But her heavy-handed seductions of Stanley go way beyond deluded coquetry from the start, an approach that tears the mysteries off her scandalous past too early to surprise even the most loyal and/or gullible sister Stella.
Daphne Rubin-Vega plays Stella like a sweet, lusty trucker. The sisters have been cast with light skin, a decision that usefully delineates their higher-class past from the darker Stanley and Wood Harris' especially poignant Mitch.
Mann has justified the casting with history about free black people who owned plantations and slaves. There is a haunting funeral dance (with the legendary Carmen de Lavallade) and bittersweet, joyous New Orleans funeral music by Terence Blanchard. But if there is a reason for the time change from the original 1947 to 1952, it eludes me.
Also, at the preview I attended, parts of the audience clapped enthusiastically when Underwood stripped off Stanley's T-shirt and laughed when Stanley sexually mauled -- in this staging, unequivocally raped -- sister-in-law Blanche. How strange. Williams intended "Streetcar" to be disturbing, but probably not this way.
They're having a hot time in the old town of New Orleans in the flawed but compelling new Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire (**½ out of four).
You may have heard that a multiracial staging of the Tennessee Williams classic has arrived, via the same producers who brought an all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof here in 2008. But the most striking thing about this Streetcar, which opened Sunday at the Broadhurst Theatre, isn't the colors of the actors' skin; it's the comport of their characters.
It's telling that Blanche DuBois, one of the most famous neurotics in American literature, sometimes comes across as the least hysterical person on stage — or maybe just the least aggressive in her hysteria. As summoned by director Emily Mann, whom Williams befriended and worked with late in his life, the French Quarter, where Blanche visits her sister, Stella, is a raucous place, with people forever laughing or fighting, making love, or stomping and whining in agitation.
None of this exactly contradicts the text, to which Mann has remained faithful, except for a few necessary adjustments. Stella's brutish husband, Stanley, is played by the African-American star Blair Underwood and thus has lost his Polish heritage and surname, Kowalski.
But Mann is eager — too eager, at points — to emphasize the emotional and carnal intensity of the characters. Original music by jazz veteran Terence Blanchard provides alternately sultry and boisterous vibes, and cast members strut and dance between scenes and during them, touching or engaging each other as often as possible.
As Stella, Latina actress Daphne Rubin-Vega frequently seems on the verge of tears; her passion for Stanley and concern for Blanche are so pronounced that you may want to either hug her or sedate her. Yet what makes the relationship between this Stella and Stanley interesting isn't their sexual chemistry but their mutual neediness. With her hurt-little-girl voice, Rubin-Vega suggests that Stella relies on her husband for more than just the "things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark."
Underwood also brings different nuances to his iconic role. More petulant than brooding, less animalistic than possessed of animal magnetism — when he took off his shirt at a recent preview, there were approving whistles — his Stanley is nonetheless convincing in his volatility and vulnerability. He can be funny, too, delivering Stanley's flip remarks and occasional pearls of earthy knowledge with wily precision.
As Blanche, Nicole Ari Parker (of African-American and Cherokee extraction) has the most opportunity to channel Williams' wry humor. She does so deftly, while sustaining Blanche's high-strung fragility, underscored here by the unrestrained sensuality surrounding her.
But the crucial darker scenes, particularly at the end — Blanche's final confrontation with Stanley and her departure — have a strained quality, offering more graphic physicality than emotional punch.
Still, Mann and her company deserve credit for respectfully trying to lend new shadings to an old masterwork.
Nicole Ari Parker, Blair Underwood and Daphne Rubin-Vega, the stars of Emily Mann's striking production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," offer no subtle psychological insights into Blanche, Stanley and Stella. But the physical beauty and sexual magnetism they bring to these iconic characters would surely delight Tennessee Williams -- along with auds who might appreciate some kicks with their culture. The only downside to the production coup of looking good (witness the handsome set, gorgeous lighting, nice costumes, and great sounds) is that much of this bold beauty is only skin deep.
Before the audience even lays eyes on the three principals, Mann prepares the 1950s New Orleans scene for them with a parade of the French Quarter's exotic gumbo of colorful inhabitants. That tall, high-stepping marcher who carries herself like a queen is the great dancer Carmen de Lavallade, so this revival is already off to a good start.
There's no privacy on Eugene Lee's skeletal set of a rickety wooden tenement house and no room to breathe in Stanley and Stella's stultifying apartment. Lighting designer Edward Pierce brightens this drab scene with color washes in jazzy shades of blue and rose, Mark Bennett heats it up with a pulsing soundscape of street music, and Grammy guy Terence Blanchard has supplied the kind of music that makes you sweat.
Thus prepped, the audience can truly appreciate, as Williams did, the sultry, hot-breathed beauty of this seductive city.
When Blanche DuBois (Parker) arrives on this scene she can't see past the dirt and poverty. Having buried the last of her family and lost their ancestral estate, this fragile flower of Southern womanhood thinks she's found refuge with her earthier (and mentally sturdier) younger sister, Stella (Rubin-Vega). Unfortunately for her, Stella's crude and vulgar (but incredibly sexy) husband, Stanley (Underwood), sees right through the fantasies she's constructed of her life.
Tall, shapely, and drop-dead gorgeous, Parker is nothing like the Blanche traditionally played as a physically delicate and emotionally damaged woman teetering on the edge of madness. The aura of health and vigor that Parker projects gives the lie to Blanche's helplessness, and her flirtatious efforts to charm her brother-in-law and his lowlife friends show more shrewd calculation than panicked desperation.
While this robust performance diminishes Blanche's vulnerability, the unexpected strength and determination that Parker finds in her character makes Blanche's brutal rape more sadistic -- and her mental breakdown more unnerving for a modern audience.
Mann's blunt staging of the rape scene blows away another conventional view of the play; namely, that refined Blanche and barbaric Stanley are two sides of the sexual coin, involving Blanche as a semi-complicit partner in her own rape. In this production, rape means rape.
Far from throwing the sexual dynamic of the play out of joint, Mann's color-casting brings it into sharper relief. In a mainly black cast, Stanley's sneering reference to ladylike Blanche's "lily-white fingers" is a grave insult, if not as nasty as Blanche's constant putdowns of Stanley ("There's something downright bestial about him") and his dark-skinned, working-class friends. The color-sensitive casting also makes Mitch's abject adoration of Blanche all the more touching in the scenes beautifully underplayed by Wood Harris ("The Wire") and Parker.
To his credit, Underwood sticks to the program and turns in a physically powerful performance, playing Stanley as the brute "animal" Blanche calls him, with no hint of the wounded little boy that Stella sees. The violence of his lovemaking may suit his little hot-pot of a wife (especially in Robin-Vega's lusty perf), but when he socks her in the jaw, it's no love tap.
As good as it looks, the visceral production style does come at the cost of psychological subtlety. Lacking that dimension, it's tough to believe Stanley's claim to Blanche -- and to the audience -- that "we've had this date from the beginning."