'A Streetcar Named Desire': Theater Review

A Streetcar Named Desire - Gillian Anderson-H 2016
Courtesy of Teddy Wolff
A tram on a loop-track to derailment.

Gillian Anderson stars as Blanche DuBois, fleeing from time and tawdry reality as she careens into insanity in Tennessee Williams' classic, with Ben Foster as her adversary.

The first thing that sets apart Gillian Anderson's riveting Blanche DuBois from many interpretations of the role is how crisp and put-together she looks upon arrival in New Orleans, at a low-rent address called Elysian Fields. Distractedly gesturing behind her for a neighbor to take care of her (fake?) Vuitton luggage, she surveys the scene through outsize Anna Wintour shades, distinctly unimpressed. Poised on towering heels with her souffle of bottle-blond hair and smart beige suit, she looks less like the usual half-broken creature from Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire than a pampered Real Housewife of Laurel, Mississippi, slumming it on a family visit.

Of course, that's exactly the impression that Blanche, a tenacious fantasist in a world of claustrophobic reality, wants to give. Only when she starts frantically rummaging in a cupboard for something alcoholic to take the edge off do we get a first glimmer of the anxiety chewing away at her insides. Anderson's steady unraveling from carefully composed Southern belle clinging to the antiquated ways of her genteel upbringing to disgraced, bedraggled slut, eventually ushered off to the nuthouse, is truly harrowing.

In a production whose directorial flourishes can often have an attenuating effect, one masterstroke is the daring prolongation of Blanche's final exit as she's escorted on the arm of an asylum doctor in a full circuit of the set, still bravely attempting to pass herself off as a lady on the arm of a gallant gentleman. That grotesque, almost slow-motion procession is both difficult to watch and impossible to look away from, giving more wrenching power to the drama's final act than I can ever remember.

Whatever the virtues and follies of director Benedict Andrews' self-consciously radical in-the-round regietheater staging, which comes to St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn from London's Young Vic, it gives us an incandescent Blanche, shoved head-first over the edge with the stomach-shifting freefall of a rollercoaster. And in a production in which the actors' work is more consistently persuasive than the conceptual choices, it also gives us Ben Foster's distinctive Stanley Kowalski, a physically and psychologically considered characterization that sidesteps the long shadow of Marlon Brando.

The set, by Swiss designer Magda Willi, is a rectangular prism with no walls — open and yet oddly airless. All blond wood and white or cream-colored furnishings, it has a look of bland, IKEA-style sterility, just waiting to be trashed. From the moment Blanche's agitation becomes evident, the lateral fire escape detaches and the principal structure begins slowly to revolve. It continues turning almost throughout the duration, halting occasionally or even reversing during crisis moments.

This is initially a distraction, as is the contemporary setting for a play so rooted in mid-century perceptions of the clash between fussy refinement and animalistic brutality. (Woody Allen got around that in his Blue Jasmine update by reimagining the situations, characters and language.) It also comes with pluses and minuses, as characters loom into revealing closeup in key moments but then disappear from view for others. But the rotating environment begins to make sense as a disorienting manifestation of the worsening turmoil in Blanche's head. Her world is one in which promises of rescue materialize for a blessed instant only to spin out of reach.

Less effective is the use of music, which veers from the standard-issue sleepy "N'Awlins" blues horns to include bombastic metal, needling upright-bass doodles, trance rock and on-the-nose song selections like PJ Harvey's "To Bring You My Love" and (groan) Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game." These at times add to the cinematic feel of the production (notably the use of Cat Power's "Troubled Waters" over the final march) but are just as often intrusive, stretching the transitions to self-indulgent lengths that pad the running time to a taxing three hours, 20 minutes.

There have been countless productions in which the sexual tension between Blanche and her rough-hewn brother-in-law Stanley has been more palpable. But what resonates most powerfully here is the class gulf. In deep denial about her fall from grace back in Laurel, if not about her financial dire straits, Blanche from the minute she arrives turns up her nose at Stanley and the tacky home he has provided for her sister Stella (Vanessa Kirby). Anderson finds all the humor in Blanche's imperiousness as well as the savageness and self-delusion. One of the most nail-biting scenes is when she unpacks her damning assessment of Stanley to her sister, calling him a subhuman ape left behind on the evolutionary chain. As Stanley listens unseen at the door, you can almost see the indignation bristling through Foster's tattooed, grease-smeared upper body.

Vanessa Kirby and Ben Foster

The slap to Stanley's pride and the threat to his macho dominance register as painful stings in a performance from Foster that manages to find unexpected notes of vulnerability in a wife-beater and rapist. It’s as if Blanche's jasmine perfume has poisoned the atmosphere, making even this frightened, angry boy's adoring wife look a little askance at him.

The lone Brit in the principal quartet, Kirby has a tenuous hold on the Southern accent. But the sexual heat between Stella and Stanley positively sizzles. That ups the stakes for him to maintain the status quo by any means necessary and makes her defensiveness about his worst behavior plausible.

In midriff tops and boy shorts, or body-hugging knit dresses even late in her pregnancy, Kirby's leggy Stella is a long way from Kim Hunter's original plain-Jane mold for the role. She's gritty and authentic though, willingly tethered to Stanley's down-and-dirty world while entirely believable as Blanche's devoted sister, right down perhaps to the faint risk that she might trip and fall into her own madness. Her raw anguish in the final scene, howling on the fire escape as Blanche is removed from the house, is devastating.

Another distinguishing factor here is how strongly Stanley is defined by his time in the Army, almost as if he's still figuring out where he fits into civilian life. His lusty appetite for his wife notwithstanding, he's a guy's guy who comes alive with the rowdy pleasures of a drunken poker game or a bowling night. That also fortifies his urge to save his old military buddy Mitch (Corey Johnson, solid if unexceptional), Blanche's sensitive suitor, from marriage to a woman who's not what she advertises. Foster has bulked up for the role, not with a sculpted gym body but with a brawny build truer to the play's original post-WWII time frame. His cargo pants and ratty chinos could almost be military fatigues, and when he throws on a Hawaiian shirt over his tank top, he looks like a serviceman on furlough in the Pacific.

Costumer Victoria Behr does interesting things with Blanche's wardrobe, too. She seems to wind back the decades and retreat deeper into fantasy as the straitjacket tightens — exchanging her traveling suit for a flirty retro-style yellow dress with polka dots, then later for her abortive birthday party, a garish red formal gown with a ridiculous fascinator in her hair. Finally, as the door slams on her sanity, she slips into a silly princess prom number with a rhinestone tiara, kind of Carrie Bradshaw-meets-Baby Jane Hudson. That gives Stanley masses of tulle to rifle through as he straddles her in the rape scene, which is disturbing, even if his satanic crimson silk wedding pajamas seem an unlikely choice for this brute. Perhaps they're his primitive attempt, fed by a nagging sense of class inferiority, to show Blanche he's not without sophistication?

The violence is shockingly visceral, as befits a production that aims for the unvarnished severity of European directors like Ivo van Hove or Thomas Ostermeier. But having name actors like Anderson and Foster in the cast also limits the stark hyperrealism if nudity is off the table. When Blanche steps into the tub either in underwear or fully clothed, it jerks us out of the moment. In fact, while people keep stomping off to the bathroom, they go there mainly to brood, not use the facilities. That gleaming toilet serves only for Stella to take one quick tinkle and for Blanche to heave up her birthday booze.

No matter. The performances ultimately prevail, with Anderson the main attraction. There's haunting poignancy in her confession, "I want to rest. I want to breathe quietly again," illuminating just how hard Blanche has been working to keep up appearances. Her exchange with the young man (Otto Farrant) who comes to the door collecting newspaper payments is predatorily drag-queeny, but also weirdly touching as it shows the depths of her damage. The further she tumbles into a trap the more awful the pathos, as she defiantly rejects realism while clutching in desperation at magic.

Venue: St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn, New York
Cast: Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster, Vanessa Kirby, Corey Johnson, Sarah-Jane Potts, Mark Letheren, Otto Farrant, Lachele Carl, Nicholas Gecks, Troy Glasgow, Stephanie Jacob, Claire Prempeh
Director: Benedict Andrews
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Set designer: Magda Willi
Costume designer: Victoria Behr
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Music: Alex Baranowski
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Production: Young Vic, Joshua Andrews
Presented by St. Ann's Warehouse, in association with Bruno Wang Productions