There is a crucial question to be asked when reviving a play in the American theatrical canon: what do you do when 50% of your audience already knows the story? The answer, as seen elsewhere this season in Death of a Salesman, is not to reinvent the wheel. Often the fear in mounting a revival lies in an even more daunting question: how could we possibly try? Emily Mann’s electric, accessible production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire doesn’t attempt to rewrite history, it simply delivers.
Much has already been made of Mann’s predominantly African-American casting landscape. Racial specificity isn’t the point of Williams’ text, so, at first glance, the casting is incidental—a believable cultural and ethnic representation of the French Quarter. But it is deceptively incisive. Williams wrote amid ardent post-World War I nationalism, and while we might not see so much in-hating between European descendents and immigrants these days, contempt from a lighter-skinned Blanche toward a darker-skinned Stanley is a little too familiar. When Blanche takes her swipes against Stanley, painting him as a caveman, going so far as to call him an “ape,” or when she suggests that “he is what [she and Stella] need to mix with [their] blood,” her obvious caste-consciousness draws a sharp comparison. During this particular performance, Blanche’s speech about Stanley’s “sub-human”-ness got huge laughs, and later, when another character threatens to “turn the fire hose on [Stanley], same as last time,” the bulk of people seemed to focus more on the famous “Stella” yell. This is Mann’s way of commuting a classic text for a modern audience, without that audience realizing it outright. Her subtlety is wicked — race is neither shallow nor newsworthy here, and therefore all the more potent a method of turning the mirror.
As Blanche and Stanley, Nicole Ari Parker and Blair Underwood are brilliantly, thankfully unbound by their towering (and numerous) predecessors. Ms. Parker’s Blanche is a nervous bird, a tremulous wreck of a woman. Her presence from her first minutes onstage tinge the next two hours with heartache—it’s clear we haven’t shown up to watch her break down, because she was in pieces from the get-go. But her charm. We cannot comprehend her fall without appreciating her heights, and Ms. Parker’s effortless allure gives Blanche a depth and appeal beyond the “bipolar, alcoholic nymphomaniacs” of old. This Streetcar doesn’t drive home Blanche’s compulsive acquiescence to desire, it makes it clear how much she wants, no needs, to hold the desire of others. And she intones it all with a voice like silk and sand, turning even the most blatant “monologue moments” into something more like jazz riffs.
Mr. Underwood finds similar pathos in a role remembered for its crudeness, its sexual magnetism, and, yes, that yell. Underwood has presence to spare, and does not settle for coasting on his considerable good looks and swagger. His Stanley is less of the drunken, dangerous lout (though still more than a little threatening) and more of the man who holds his ground by any means necessary in order to stave off the pressure of self-loathing, vulnerability, disrespect, and disappointment. He doesn’t know how else to cope, so he hits, or he drinks, or he rages. He does awful things, and while we don’t condone them, we understand him. His performance works in counterpoint to give the production a satisfying push-and-pull.
Similarly satisfying were Daphne Rubin-Vega and Wood Harris as Stella and Mitch. Ms. Rubin-Vega makes impressive use of her distinctive voice, and we suspect that she isn’t really “the quiet one” after all. She is torn between continuing as a loyal mirror for her sister or a loyal wife to her husband. Both come at considerable detriment, but her Stella is one who will always have to keep it together. Mr. Harris is likeable and makes the most of his character’s turn, though his performance is slightly lost in the shuffle. He is best in the poker game scenes, where he has a surer presence than in small, one-on-one moments.
What this Streetcar lacks in innovation, it more than makes up for in harrowing, operatic commitment, simmering sensuality, and undeniable skill. This limited engagement hits Broadway like a bolt from the blue, and it is definitely worth the ride.