Review: 'Streetcar Named Desire' is steamy, strong

Associated Press
In this April 2, 2012 photo provided by Springer Associates, from left, Stanley, played by Blair Underwood, lashes out at his wife, Stella, played by Daphne Rubin-Vega next to Blanche, played by Nicole Ari Parker, in a scene from  "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. A talented multi-racial cast tackles Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the clash between an aging and delusional Southern belle and her brutish brother-in-law. It opens Sunday, April 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Springer Associates, Ken Howard)
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NEW YORK (AP) — In the end, Stanley will have his awful, violent revenge on Blanche. She will see it coming — she'll struggle, her eyes will go wide like a deer's and she'll try to bolt. But he'll get her and then he will surely break her. What the races are of the actors on stage is immaterial.

The new revival of Tennessee Williams' often brutal "A Streetcar Named Desire," which features African-Americans in the lead roles, opened Sunday at the Broadhurst Theatre as a reminder of the power of the writing.

An excellent ensemble cast — a fragile Nicole Ari Parker stars as the doomed Blanche, a swaggering Blair Underwood as Stanley, a spitfire Daphne Rubin-Vega as Stella and a laconic Wood Harris as Mitch — combines under taut directing from Emily Mann to create a fresh way to enjoy an iconic play.

The production — produced by many of the people behind the 2008 Broadway revival of Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" with an all-black cast — feels authentically New Orleans, thanks in no small part to city native Terence Blanchard's original up-tempo music.

Only a few cuts to the script have been necessary: out came Stanley's last name, the Polish-sounding Kowalski, and a bar's name was changed to one that wasn't segregated back in the 1950s. It is wonderfully freed from the classic 1951 Elia Kazan film with an undershirt-wearing Marlon Brando bellowing "Stella!"

A steaminess seems to hang over the stage, as actors fan themselves, remove clothes and even Edward Pierce's lighting seems hazy and hot, as if the sun itself was blasting through wooden planks in the French Quarter's bottom apartment.

Underwood's Stanley is a cocksure, man's man who is introduced throwing a bundle of meat at his pregnant wife. His Stanley has no problem putting his paws on his wife's face, yanking letters out of peoples' hands or undressing in public.

"You're simple, straightforward and honest, a little bit on the primitive side I should think," Blanche tells him. Later she tells her sister what she really thinks: "He acts like an animal, has an animal's habits! Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one! There's even something — subhuman — something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Yes, something — ape-like about him."

But Underwood also has gotten the sad, frustrated, attention-seeking Stanley down. When he screams for Stella in the scene at the end of Act 1, you feel his shame for what he's done — and he's also thankfully wearing a red T-shirt, not the white tank top of Brando.

Parker in real life is simply not faded enough to play Blanche — this is a woman stunning enough to stop traffic in Times Square — so her makeup and acting are especially needed to make her into a mannered, hyper-feminine, needy Southern belle. She comes through it powerfully and elegantly. It's a performance that could stop traffic.

Rubin-Vega plays her Stella with a hellcat lurking not too far below the surface, a woman who is used to her husband's violence, a little thrilled by the passion, and who also knows the storm of regret that envelops him afterward.

Harris' Mitch is laconic and smooth and delicious. The scene in which he finally sees Blanche under the naked night and is pitiless is great. Watching him quietly weep as Blanche is later taken away is heartbreaking.

And yet there are jarring times when these four seem to be each acting independently, as if they were following their own character arc without heed to the rest of the ballet. There's sometimes a jaggedness to the show when the slow boil of one character is interrupted by the angry screams of another that seemed to come from nowhere.

Eugene Lee's expressive set — two small rooms separated by a few curtains — adds to the claustrophobia that is inevitable when a couple is joined by an in-law with lots of luggage. To make matters worse, the sink is filthy, the wooden furniture is flaking paint and the slats in the window shade are smashed and uneven. When they play cards, the men must sit on crates. No wonder Blanche is pushed to the edge.

Costumes by Paul Tazewell are first rate, especially Blanche's white, frilly gowns and frocks. He's cleverly made some great shirts for Stanley by riffing off the character's love of bowling. Many in the audience clearly wanted Underwood to wear as little as possible and he often obliges, but never exploitatively.

At the end of the play, a broken Blanche, the woman who represents the Old South, utters one of the most self-evident lines in Williams' repertoire: "I'm anxious to get out of here — this place is a trap." She's right but the production definitely isn't — it's a joy that reminds us again how good Williams was.

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