Yes, It's a Streetcar, But Where's the Desire?
Watching Natasha Richardson's Blanche DuBois, looking as young, pretty and wrinkle-free as a chorus girl from Brigadoon, anguish at the thought of anyone seeing her in direct light and revealing her faded youth is a little too much like watching a size zero fashion model whining, "I'm so fat!", after greedily devouring a small green salad with balsamic vinegar on the side. You know Blanche is supposed to be a little bonkers but there's only so far a healthy suspension of disbelief can take you before you start wishing for those dark lines of eyebrow pencil age marks you see high school kids wear when they play the parents in Our Town.
But that's not to discredit Richardson, who, appearance aside, is generally convincing and moving, if a bit too sturdy at times, as Tennessee Williams' iconoclastic fallen Southern belle (or one of them, at least) who leaves her schoolteacher job under scandalous circumstances to live with her sister in one of the less savory sections of New Orleans.
In fact, all of the artists director Edward Hall has gathered to contribute to this revival of A Streetcar Named Desire have done fine work. What's missing is the intangible element that solidifies it all into a uniform production. There's something in this Streetcar that just isn't there. What is it? Oh yes... desire!
The easy answer would be to blame the non-traditional interpretation of Blanche's brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, as played by the reliable character actor John C. Reilly, but that wouldn't be fair at all. Instead of the Andy Warhol-worthy portrayal originated by young Marlon Brando of steamy, well-chiseled bad boy sexuality, Reilly is a more typical and realistic lug of a blue-collar guy. He likes his beer, he likes his bowling and he likes playing poker with his buddies. If the interpretation reminds you a bit too much of Fred Flintstone or Ralph Kramden (especially when he sternly reminds his wife Stella that he's the king of the household), please suppress your giggles because, whether it really works in context or not, Reilly is giving it a heck of a good shot. The trouble comes from creating any kind of sexual smolder between Richardson's Blanche and Rielly's Stanley. There's animosity, sure, but so little in the way of sexual tension that when he does take her it seems more like, if you recall a certain Reilly film role, he was fixing a carburetor or something.
But if the production as a whole is less than desirable, individual pieces are quite good. Especially Amy Ryan's robust, spunky and maternally intelligent Stella, trying desperately to mediate some kind of truce between her husband and sister. And Chris Bauer does fine work as Mitch, the nice guy who has no idea what he's in for by courting Blanche.
Robert Brill's set is an impressive unit of interiors and exteriors, with iron railings meant for architectural beauty giving a more foreboding presence under Donald Holder's moody lighting, which nicely guides our attention around the neighborhood. William Ivey Long's delicate costume designs for Blanche, set against the durable working class togs of those around her, complete the visuals while John Gromada's sound and music adds a community atmosphere.
No matter where you look throughout this production you're bound to find a ceiling fan twirling away. If only there was something on stage that needed cooling down. But as this is New Orleans in the summertime, perhaps the real problem is, as Cole Porter told us the season after Streetcar premiered, it's too darn hot.