A Streetcar Named Desire

Review by Adam Blair

By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Edward Hall
Starring Natasha Richardson, John C. Reilly, Amy Ryan and Chris Bauer, with Kristine Nielsen, Scott Sowers, Frank Pando, Will Toale, Teresa Yenque, John Carter and Barbara Sims
At Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, New York City

If I had a time machine that could plunk me down in a Broadway theater any time in the last 75 years, I would definitely use one of the trips to see the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Not so much to see Marlon Brando in the flesh as to see how Jessica Tandy navigated the treacherous currents and multiple masks of Blanche DuBois. Tandy’s performance was not immortalized on film—Vivien Leigh, wonderful in her way, belled the cat and snagged her second Oscar for the 1951 movie—and I would love to know how the first Blanche pronounced the lines that have become so familiar that they can sound strange, if strangely familiar, in their original theatrical context.

While I’m making magical wishes, I wish there was a pill that could make me forget everything I’ve ever heard, read or thought about Streetcar. That way, I could feel more confident discussing the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production without so many ghosts murmuring and screaming in my ears. The play has become such a ubiquitous part of our theatrical heritage, as well as a veritable sourcebook for queer attitudes and camp followers, that any actual production requires an extremely strong theatrical concept, powerhouse actors or both in order for the evening to become more than just a collection of best-loved quotes.

Some directors solve the familiarity issue with a radical approach. The New York Theatre Workshop’s 1999 version, directed by Ivo van Hove and with the incredible Elizabeth Marvel as Blanche, regularly dunked characters in an onstage tub of water and featured a frontally nude Stanley for much of the second act. The Roundabout’s production, directed by Edward Hall, is much more traditional, with one important exception in the casting (more on that in a bit).

The selective amnesia pill would help me decide whether Natasha Richardson—who is undeniably brilliant in many ways—really knows Blanche down to the bone and the marrow. (I saw the show at an early preview, and the performances are likely to change—and strengthen—before opening night on April 26, 2005).

I could also watch John C. Reilly’s Stanley Kowalski without the iconic presence of Marlon Brando lurking. But even if I could forget the Great Mumbler’s performance, I think I would still have a problem with Reilly’s Stanley. It’s not that he doesn’t have stage chops; he’s no Peter Krause, who headed the disastrous Roundabout production of After the Fall as if he’d never even been to a theater, much less acted in one. The problem is more elemental than that.

Reilly is not sexy.

On film he usually plays a best friend, generally a decent guy but rarely a romantic lead (not that Stanley is that, exactly). Perhaps his emblematic role is the cuckolded husband in the film version of Chicago. Whatever Reilly is like as a person or in person, he does not project sexual tension, menace or attraction on stage. And without a sexy Stanley, Streetcar doesn’t get very far.

Stanley must project a raw, animalistic sexuality for his relationship with Stella to make sense, especially in 2005 when his physical abuse of her is more shocking than it might have been in 1947. And he must present a sexual threat to Blanche, who normally controls men through her attractiveness but is stymied when her flirtations and feints have no apparent effect on him. Reilly tries, and Amy Ryan as Stella does her damndest as well, but they just didn’t convince me that they were having set-the-sheets-on-fire, call-the-cops sex up until Blanche arrived.

Understand I’m not saying Stanley has to be good-looking. Ugly-sexy would work just as well, maybe better. If he were a few years younger, I would love to see Bill Murray give Stanley a shot—maybe opposite his old “Saturday Night Live” combatant Jane Curtin. (“Blanche, you ignorant slut!”).

Hall may have wanted to dispel the Brando mystique that still envelops Streetcar by casting someone so apparently ordinary as Stanley. And Reilly does look like a guy whose main forms of exercise are bowling and playing poker. He would be a dandy Mitch (Blanche’s suitor, who is taken in by her magnolia-scented charms for a while, played here by an excellent Chris Bauer). But despite some affecting moments (his neediness and open vulnerability with Stella after he hits her is quite affecting), Reilly is just not Stanley—at least not yet.

Is Richardson Blanche? She could be. Her scenes with Bauer’s Mitch are remarkably raw and real; her monologue about the suicide of her young husband, precipitated by Blanche’s discovery of his homosexuality and her cruel rejection of him, clears the cobwebs off and reminds us that, whatever grudging acceptance of gayness we have achieved today, it was still a shock to a well-brought-up Southern girl circa 1933. It’s also, of course, a reminder of Tennessee Williams’ gift for making poetry sound like the most natural, inevitable thing for anyone on stage to say.

In fact, Streetcar’s words and its theatrical structure are so strong that it survives strange directorial visions and oddly cast actors. Perhaps there’s no one definitive production (as I mentioned, the film took only three of the original quartet from the stage: Brando, Kim Hunter’s Stella and Karl Malden’s Mitch). As with Shakespeare, dedicated theatergoers must assemble their perfect cast from multiple viewings of multiple productions.

My dream cast would be Elizabeth Marvel or Edie Falco as Blanche, opposite “Law and Order: SVU”’s Christopher Meloni as Stanley, with Laura Linney as Stella and Michael C. Hall (“Six Feet Under”) as Mitch. Grin without a Cat readers are invited to send me their dream casts. I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

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