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4/23/12

A Streetcar Named…Enh, Whatever

I really don’t like blog entries where I can potentially look ignorant - believe me, I do my research and any expertise on my side comes simply from consistent visits to Broadway – but the production of A Streetcar Named Desire, now open at the Broadhurst Theater, pushes me into that corner.

Remember when On A Clear Day, You Can See Forever made the mistake of revolving the show around switching the “Streisand” role from girl to boy, the show’s single ambition? A Streetcar Named Desire’s only creative decision was casting the four lead roles as African-Americans, the first major production to do so. That’s it…that seems to be the crux of this entire production. Tell me something…what is the big idea here? Why is the show making such a big deal out of this?

Stella!!!! Or something...
I don’t mean to question what that idea really means nowadays, even though my initial reaction was that it set society back a few decades. But race-blind casting is not uncommon in theater and unlike Hairspray, racial politics are not an actual plot component of Streetcar. Stanley has a short fuse and gets abusive, Blanche is dishonest and mischievous and Stella is unjustly sympathetic to her husband’s barbarian ways…those qualities don’t identify with any particular race more then the others.

The overall production has the styling and structure that call to mind its predecessors. Set in New Orleans in 1952 (instead of 1947), certain elements, such as Stanley’s last name never being mentioned, are altered to accommodate…casting or something. These slight changes don’t really change the direction of Streetcar, but somehow, the production comes to a conclusion sans passion or any sort of consistent emotion that one would expect would happen when you stick Stanley, Blanche and Stella into a house together…because all of the thought went into casting and every other element was as “by the numbers” as they come. And “by the numbers” in theater speak not so loosely translates to boring.

I was not expecting there to be more thought on the creative end nor is that a common aspect in revivals. I heavily praised Death of a Salesman last month and it is a production I would hardly call “creative.” But what Salesman lucked into was being timely – a real bonus in the realm of things – and it has crazy-awesome acting. In fact, I imagine Andrew Garfield is somewhere icing his trachea and pounding honey after another week of performing.

The performances here only add to my qualms. In fact, they could have absolved my issues with casting if the right person was well fit for each respective part. The first stretch of the show had Blanche and Stella engaged in a long conversation and it all amounted into a whole lot of nothing. More importantly, it began this train of thought I had that the performers were too much in their own minds and instead of fully immersing themselves into character, they did not want to offend anyone or challenge the status quo…that was ultimately the fatal mistake. I couldn’t shake this feeling that the performances were over thought, and yet, I felt so unmoved as the proceedings were unfolding on stage.

Nicole Ari Parker may be stunningly beautiful (which is convenient considering she is a former model) as Blanche and Daphne Rubin Vega’s voice is surprisingly cute as Stella (which is weird considering I can’t stand her on the Rent cast recording). But man, these ladies shoot this production down time and time again. I had a close enough seat where I was hoping to be rewarded with subtlety and nuance…but all I saw were the gears moving in their heads and the seams of their shoddy performances come undone at the least opportune times.

There is one exception to the masses though…and that is Blair Underwood’s Stanley. At least when he stepped into a scene, there was this building anticipation of “something is about to go down here.” Underwood has enough stage presence to achieve that, the kind that demands your attention once you catch sight of him. That is not a huge accomplishment and nearly every moment did not pay off as it should, but it was enough to make me perk up in my seat and distract me from the lifeless, overlong scenes of Blanche and Stella drifting about on stage...if I can even call it that.

The failsafe for this production is that Williams’ writing is and always was a treat, no matter whose mouth the words come out of. He would probably be intrigued by this version of Streetcar, but I am certain this is far from what he had in mind. The integrity of his play is sacrificed in favor for a marketing strategy he would criticize back in his days of writing. I am in no ways a purveyor of his artistic expression, but I can’t help but think he would say something similar to what I have.


Photo Credit: StreetcaronBroadway

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