A Streetcar Named Desire: Theater Review

Ken Howard
Nicole Ari Parker and Blair Underwood
Not quite the revisionist reworking of Tennessee Williams that its unconventional casting would appear to indicate but a solid, atmospheric staging that favors the play's raw sensuality and humor.

Blair Underwood, Nicole Ari Parker, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Wood Harris star in the multiracial Broadway revival of the Tennessee Williams classic, from the same producing team behind 2008's all-black "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

NEW YORK -- The advertising for the multiracial Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker bears little relation to the play. The poster proclaims: “The American classic never looked this good.” That seems to imply a more picturesque view of the seedy midcentury setting in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and hotter versions of Blanche and Stanley, the adversaries on either side of Tennessee Williams’ bruising clash between sensitivity and unvarnished reality. Even more perplexing is the tagline adorning the theater marquee: “Give in to it.” What, exactly? In a drama fueled by self-delusion, alcohol, rape and madness, none of those options seems all that enticing.

Fortunately, the misgivings stirred by its odd marketing recede as Emily Mann’s engrossing production progresses. This is not a reinvention of the 1947 play, as the casting conceit might suggest. Nor is it a revelation in terms of startling new takes on familiar characters. It tends to underserve the pathos while more assiduously exploring the humor and sensuality. But while it’s uneven, this is a muscular staging driven by four compelling, sexy lead performances and a sturdy ensemble.

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Mann’s loose, naturalistic approach to the text is respectful without being too reverential. What distinguishes her production, however, is the evocative atmosphere of a milieu in which sex, death and violence perfume the sweaty air. Spiced by the jazzy strains of Terence Blanchard’s original score, this Streetcar smolders. Eugene Lee’s lived-in set, Paul Tazewell’s flavorful costumes and the scorching colors of Edward Pierce’s lighting all help provide a vivid sense of place.

Lead producers Stephen C. Byrd and Alia M. Jones were behind the 2008 African-American Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and have long been working on following up with Streetcar, which arguably is a better fit. As playwright John Guare illustrated in last season’s sprawling epic about race and class, A Free Man of Color, New Orleans has always been one of the country’s most culturally diverse cities, with black residents among both the landowners and the poor. Williams gave his blessing as far back as the 1950s to a production performed by black actors, and this is not the first.

Mann has made canny casting choices in Parker and Daphne Rubin-Vega as the sisters Blanche and Stella DuBois, whose upbringing was one of privilege and refinement on the family estate Belle Reve. Both of them relatively fair-skinned, they might pass for members of a Louisiana Creole clan. By contrast, Underwood’s Stanley is darker. (The surname Kowalski and references to his Polish background have been dropped in what appear to be the only significant alterations.) That provides a parallel to the play’s original immigrant element in prejudices concerning pigmentation. Particularly when Blanche dismisses her sister’s husband as a common ape, it adds unexpected connotations.

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While Parker is an alluring stage presence, her appearance is disconcerting at first. A former model best known for her work on the Showtime drama Soul Food, she is a statuesque beauty who conveys little of the jittery frailty of fading flower Blanche. Even under the stark glare of a naked light bulb, this woman is a knockout. Instead, Parker makes the character a wily fantasist, not so much lost in her reveries as carefully keeping the pieces of her cracked gentility in place. Her dealings with a crudely antagonistic hulk like Stanley suggest she knows her way around guys like him. Or at least thinks she does.

But if Blanche appears to lack vulnerability for much of the sluggish first act, Parker plays her subsequent unraveling commandingly. That process is enhanced by sharp work in her scenes with potential savior Mitch, which are the production’s finest moments. In an incisively nuanced interpretation by Wood Harris (HBO’s The Wire), Mitch is courtly, kind and not overly confident around women -- the opposite of his coarse, swaggering Army buddy, Stanley. Without making him less of a man, Harris adopts a slightly hunched posture that suggests he’s uncomfortable in his gangly frame.

While Mitch can sometimes seem an opportunistic choice for Blanche, there’s a tangible attraction between them here. That makes it all the more distressing when their romance is shattered after Stanley digs up the sordid truth about his sister-in-law. Parker is at her best in the blazing confessional scene in which Mitch confronts Blanche and she boldly answers to the charges about her corrupted past. And watching Harris with his head bowed and his face in his hands as Blanche is led away at the end of the play, Mitch’s loss is as affecting as her disintegration.

The rapport between the two sisters also is nicely drawn. While Blanche assumes Stella must feel trapped in her shabby home and volatile marriage to a hotheaded brute, Rubin-Vega makes it clear that she chose to walk away from her former world and embrace an earthier existence. Hers is a sultry Stella; the makeup sex she has with Stanley after he slugs her early in the play gets almost feral. The actress finds all the poignancy in the conflict between Stella’s love for her husband and her protectiveness toward Blanche.

Leaving aside the distraction of the swoons and catcalls from the audience whenever the ripped Underwood removes his shirt, his Stanley is an impulsive, animalistic man in full command of his rude charms and sexual powers. Fiercely territorial, his animosity toward Blanche surfaces the minute she arrives. And while the rape scene is often played ambiguously, its violence here is shocking, as is Stanley’s utter lack of remorse when Blanche is carted off to the psych ward.

Mann stages that wrenching final scene well, with Blanche running to cower behind a wrought-iron bed like a frightened creature in a cage. The notable difference, however, is the stiff-backed pride with which Parker takes the doctor’s arm and exits, suggesting either that Blanche’s fantasies of a gallant rescuer persist, or more controversially, that she will somehow survive even this humiliation.

Venue: Broadhurst Theatre, New York (runs through July 22)
Cast: Blair Underwood, Nicole Ari Parker, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Wood Harris, Amelia Campbell, Matthew Saldivar, Rosa Evangelina Arredondo, Carmen de Lavillade, Aaron Clifton Moten, Jacinto Taras Riddick, Count Stovall
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Director: Emily Mann
Set designer: Eugene Lee
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Edward Pierce
Sound designer: Mark Bennett
Music: Terence Blanchard
Presented by Stephen C. Byrd, Alia M. Jones, Anthony Lacavera, BET Networks, Henry G. Jarecki, Simon Says Entertainment, Dancap Productions, in association with Linda Davila, Patricia & Thomas Bransford, Theatre Venture