Nicole Ari Parker and Blair Underwood in
a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire
(Photo credit: Ken Howard)
The sixth Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire, is very different than previous revivals. First, director Emily Mann has staged the first multi-racial version of the play on Broadway with television stars Blair Underwood (L.A. Law, City of Angels, Fatherhood, In Treatment, The Event) and Nicole Ari Parker (Soul Food, Second Time Around, The Deep End) as Stanley and Blanche. Second, Mann has brought out the hidden humor inherent in the play all along.
And third and not least important, this is the first of the five Broadway revivals that does not make you think of Marlon Brando’s iconic performance, best-known from the 1950 film version. Underwood and Parker make a fine pairing though Underwood has chosen to emphasize Stanley’s brutality rather than his sexuality, so that there is palpable antagonism but little chemistry between them. Mann seems to be making this less a character study, and more of an engrossing, involving story which works on the level of plotting.
Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire forever planted the idea in the theatergoing public of New Orleans as a hot and steamy American city. Blanche DuBois, former school teacher and fading Southern belle, has come from Laurel, Mississippi, to visit her married sister Stella in New Orleans’ relaxed and earthy French Quarter. Never having met Stella’s husband Stanley, a man’s man who travels for a tool and die company, or having seen their tiny, shabby apartment, or been introduced to Stanley’s poker buddies, Blanche is unprepared for what she encounters and is in for quite a shock.
Violent-tempered Stanley takes an instant dislike to Blanche’s affected, posh manners and goes out of his way to embarrass her with his uncouth and unrefined ways. However, it is only when the unmarried Blanche begins seriously dating his army buddy Mitch that he begins to look into her shady past and becomes her destined nemesis. Having arrived nearly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Blanche is pushed ever closer to the edge by her summer in New Orleans.
Mann’s version of Streetcar offers several minor changes that subtly shift the atmosphere of the play. The date of this production is now placed in 1952, five years after the play’s original time period, so that Stanley is out of the army several more years than previously. As Underwood is African-American, permission was granted from the estate not to use the last name of Kowalski or to make any reference to Stanley’s being of Polish decent.
The new musical score by jazz legend Terence Blanchard dazzlingly punctuates the action without interfering with it. Ironically, both the sound design by Mark Bennett and Blanchard’s music have chosen to leave out Blanche’s memory of her young husband’s suicide to dance music called “The Varsouviana” or to the gun shot which she continually hears - neither of which are suggested by the play’s soundtrack. This has the effect of making Blanche seem even more unbalanced than in previous productions.
Nicole Ari Parker, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Blair Underwood in
a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire
(Photo credit: Ken Howard)
Underwood and Parker are extremely attractive performers, dare one say beautiful. Eschewing Brando’s sexual take on Stanley, Underwood is instead a violent man who periodically loses his temper. The famous rape scene is much more brutal than any previous New York production, avoiding subtlety for contemporary explicitness. However, Underwood has an undeniable stage presence, and when he takes off his shirt on first meeting Blanche an audible gasp goes up from the audience for his enviable physique.
Parker has taken as her approach Williams’ description of Blanche as an “iron butterfly.” Her humor is more sarcastic and less desperate in this production, and triggers a great deal of laughter than one hasn’t heard before. The statuesque Parker who moves with the grace of a dancer has been given a beautiful wardrobe for her many costume changes by designer Paul Tazewell. Strangely, though Tazewell hasn’t used color or design to suggest any progression in Blanche’s mental state.
Tall, passive Wood Harris makes Mitch, the army buddy and co-worker, into a gentle giant which works extremely well as an antidote to Stanley’s brutishness. The weakest link among the leads is Daphne Rubin-Vega, who underplays Stella without showing any backbone, although she does occasionally shows flashes of fire. As Stanley and Stella’s battling upstairs neighbors, Amelia Campbell and Matthew Saldívar remind us of New Orleans’ easy diversity which we are told about at the outset of the play.
Mann creates a sense of community in this Elysian Fields neighborhood by having the supporting characters pass by the front of the stage between scenes as if on their way somewhere else. For the first time one sees the New Orleans’ Evening Star newspaper boy, played by Aaron Clifton Moten, appear several times before his one memorable scene with a more than slightly unhinged Blanche. Carmen de Lavallade puts in two fine appearances as a neighbor and as the Mexican Woman who attempts to sell Blanche flowers for the local cemetery. Often portrayed as a dream figure coming out of a mist, this time the flower seller is seen earlier so that we know she is a figure of reality. At the beginning of Act II, Mann pulls us back into the New Orleans atmosphere by staging a typical jazz funeral attended by the entire supporting cast which passes by Stanley and Stella’s dwelling.
Eugene Lee’s setting begins at the edge of the apron rather than further back so that the drama is immediate, seemingly taking place in the audience’s collective laps. The set, divided into three sections, is very cinematic: the kitchen and living space of Stanley and Stella’s apartment is center stage; their bedroom which can be separated by a tattered curtain is on stage right, and the stairs and gallery to the offstage second-floor apartment of Eunice, their landlady, occupies stage left.
Characters are often placed in two or three of these spaces simultaneously as though we are seeing more than one room at a time, or several cinematic frames side by side. Lee has also emphasized the peeling walls and broken slats on the windows and doors, so that for a change we really feel the disgust of which Blanche speaks for the condition of her sister’s living quarters. Lighting designer Edward Pierce liberally bathes the set in eerie green, purple and red lights ostensibly from the Four Deuces night club near by.
Emily Mann has created a production of A Streetcar Named Desire which demands to be judged on its own terms. In Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker, she has found a pair of leading actors who do not put you in mind of all the other Stanleys and Blanches you have seen before in the four film versions and nine New York productions since 1948. This solid, riveting, and involving production is unconventional in many ways and deserves to be given a hearing.
A Streetcar Named Desire (through July 22)
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44 Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or http://www.streetcaronbroadway.com