Wednesday, May 09, 2012

THEATER: A Streetcar Named Desire

It's the strength of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire that is reflected in the relative success of this all-black revival, not Emily Mann's directorial decisions. Well, and perhaps a little of Eugene Lee's taut set design, which brings an oubliette-like feel to the home of Stanley (Blair Underwood) and Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) that fits the melodrama of Blanche (Nicole Ari Parker), who announces that "Only Mr. Edgar Allen Poe could do it justice." As we'll learn, after all, this two-room apartment is a sort of prison, even if Stella is both too dim-witted and love-struck to notice.

Unfortunately, Mann doesn't play directly to the strengths of the text, choosing to linger instead on the incidental beats between each scene, playing up the atmospheric music (newly scored by Terence Blanchard) and throwing together silent little vignettes of the neighborhood that seem only to break the momentum of the production. While Parker's portrayal of Blanche and her deepening melancholia are able to stay fully charged (the stage directions keep her rather busy, and her actions are unassailable), Underwood's Stanley occasionally appears to be goading himself to the ever-greater depths of brutishness required of his role: the iconic "Stella!" sequence is a perfect example a man pushing himself to action, and the rape scene only half-connects (the horror of it, not the emotion of it). As for the miscast Rubin-Vega's Stella, well, it's too difficult to tell what she's thinking: suffice to say that each time she slinks back into Stanley's arms appears identical to the last. 

Despite these issues, A Streetcar Named Desire still sweats a rawness that's undeniably powerful, tinged as it is by sorrow, delusion, and naked needs. And when two powerful actors collide -- as with Wood Harris's reversal-filled Mitch and Parker's ailing and flailing Blanche -- the audience is liable to break out in sweats, too.

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