Monday, April 23, 2012

Review: A Streetcar With Much to Be Desired

Tennessee Williams is a legend. He won a Pulitzer for A Streetcar Named Desire. Homage has been paid to its infamous lines and its notorious characters throughout pop culture. Some would argue that it’s his greatest play. So does that mean the brilliant script, rich in dialogue and character, will always produce a brilliant production? I’m afraid not. Such is the case in the newest revival of A Streetcar Named Desire. So what works in this production? Very little. Let’s start with the positive.
Blanche DuBois is synonymous as being one of the most coveted roles for any actress. She’s filled with struggle and pain and heartbreak and conflict and a truly great actress can do wonders with the role. At first, Nicole Ari Parker seemed disconnected with Blanche but as the play progressed, she made Blanche rise from the mess that was the rest of the production. Parker, with her stunning appearance and captivating eyes, brought some sex appeal to Blanche. By the end of the play when she’s being taken away, you felt for her, hoping there was a chance for escape. Which is not something you felt for any other lead character in the production. Parker took command of the stage and will hopefully be remembered as a great Blanche despite the lukewarm production. The other highlight amongst the ensemble was Amelia Campbell as Eunice. Yes, that’s right. Eunice. Campbell made Eunice a more memorable character. Her take on Eunice made you wish that there was a spinoff written for her whacky neighbor. And that is about the extent of the positive.
The play for the most part is Blanche’s story. But when you have the ability to put a star in the forefront as Stanley, well, the attention tends to shift when your star is on stage. Unfortunately Blair Underwood was no Stanley. Underwood is a great actor outside of this show, but he was not used to the best ability. One of the first moments he’s on stage, he undresses, displaying his toned body. If Underwood and director Emily Mann played up Underwood’s sex appeal and matched it with Parker’s natural beauty, a new element within the play could have been discovered. But that was not what happened. Instead Underwood, when he attempted to be outraged, never quite reached a seven on the “Hulk” scale of anger. One of the most disappointing moments was when Underwood was ready to scream out the infamous “Stellaaaaaaaaa” up the stairs as his pregnant wife is being whisked away after he beat her.  Instead of subtext of I’m sorry or come back or I messed up or baby, baby please, his “Stellaaaaaaa” came across as whiney and recited. For a second I thought that this was not the “Stellaaaa” we know and love and the real one was coming later. If you want to blame casting for the misery of this production, you should also look toward Daphne Rubin-Vega. Rubin-Vega’s line delivery was similar to that of an untrained high schooler tasked with performing this monstrous play with no rehearsal. It was borderline embarrassing. Eugene Lee’s set of the rundown street level apartment was bland and lacked character. The lights by Edward Pierce tried to help make the set bearable to look at, despite the occasional obnoxious flickering lights from the unseen Bourbon St. There was a beckon of shining light in the design when the Chinese lantern was removed from the exposed light, making the room stark and utterly terrifying, like that specific moment in the play. Mark Bennett’s soundscape was filled with distracting trolley cars. Perhaps there was deeper meaning to his use of the screetching cars. Perhaps it occurred when Blanche was having internal breakdowns, but to the untrained ear it was just annoying.
It’s regrettable that this production didn’t live up to the glory that is A Streetcar Named Desire. Sure the revival that the Roundabout did a few years back didn’t get the critical claim it may have deserved, but it sure beats this one. Maybe it’s a sign to future producers that it can be too soon to revive a play or musical. Let it breath.