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Friday, May 13, 2005


A Streetcar Named Desire
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Edward Hall
Starring Natasha Richardson & John C. Reilly
Roundabout Theatre Company

I wonder if every theatre-loving NY Times reader emitted the same collective groan the Sunday the first big ad appeared for this production. The Roundabout had long ago announced "Natasha Richardson as Blanche Dubois"-- to which we may have shrugged Ok, let's see what she can do. In retrospect, we should have noticed the announcement of no co-star as an ominous sign. When that ad finally appeared, we looked to Natasha's left in the poster image and found.... Mitch! Huh? , we asked at the sight of Reilly's lovable-loser pug-nosed puss, But who's Stanley?.... Oh. Yes, then that sinking feeling that those guardians of theatrical culture at the Roundabout had once again given into the oddest and most fruitless kind of celebrity casting.

True, Reilly is not a bad actor. He's actually a real treasure. Someone we should have back more often. Imagine the authenticity he could lend some choice roles by Mamet and Lanford Wilson (a mastery of Shepard he already proved in True West) --or even going back to O'Neill and Odets. And just think of the sympathetic Willy Loman he might give us further down the line, or Eddie Carbone. His rough-around-the-edges totally natural earthiness is the kind of quality our finer drama schools are whipping out of the next generation of robo-thespians.... But Stanley Kowalski???

I have a theory. One that gives the Roundabout more credit than just selling out (I suppose they would try to book Bruce Willis--or some Reality Show hunk--if they were really determined). English director Edward Hall must have felt under enormous pressure to "reinvent" the role in the wake of Brando. And from his outsider's perspective he must have rationalized Stanley is not a monster, he is not exceptional-- he is an American everyman. He is every woman's boorish, beer guzzling husband. And so if you ever wanted to know see what a cross between Ralph Kramden and Homer Simpson would be like--speaking the sensual hyperboles of Williams's N'Orleans--then get yourself a ticket. (Even The Simpsons had the sense to give that role to Ned Flanders in their memorable musical tribute, Streetcar!)

But the problem is... Stanley Kowalski is exceptional, he must be. He is representative, yes, but of a powerful force in America that is overtaking the Blanches and belles reves of yesteryear.

Reilly's spare-tire physique (much commented upon--but what could they expect: they hardly mask it) is less of a problem than his voice. It's a tinny, even high little tenor, not ideal for the character's sultry come-ons and abusive slurs. Stanley's potentially menacing entrances now play as sit-commy "Hi honey, I'm home" moments; "Hey Blanche! Hey Stella!" barked out like a little puppy....Get the picture?

To make things worse, that ultimate costume pro William Ivey Long has not done a thing to help poor miscast Rilley look more imposing or attractive. I sense the conceptual interference of director Hall in the choice of those befuddling short-sleeve & tie combinations Stanley comes home from work in (instead of Brando we get Dilbert). Again--the Brits love that whole imagery of American 50s conformism.

There's much to say about Richardson and about the rest of the production-- but in trying to limit my space, I might as well stick with the lead story, which has to be Reilly. I agree with the crowd (c.f. Brantley) that the lovely Natasha is ultimately just too bright and shiny and, well, lovely to buy as the deeply f-ed up Miss Dubois, who men run away from when they get too close....As for Hall's production as a whole, Michael Feingold, in his thoughtfully complex criticism in the Voice, makes a plausible case for the virtues of its unobtrusive "dull competence" (i.e. you do get to see a clear version of the play, as written!) Yes, no "reading" of the play gets in the way. But the irritants are many, from the excesses--the interpolated "spiritual" stylings of Wanda L. Houston's "Negro Woman" (British directors sure like to romanticize the African American experience, so exotic)--to the laziness. I share John Lahr's (New Yorker) outrage at the exclusion of Stella's baby at the end from the disturbing "family picture". Now there's no tableau, and the whole (major) plot development of Stella's pregnancy has no payoff!

Plus, Hall has staged the lamest rape scene this playgoer has even seen on a professional stage, I'm sorry.

It's no secret there's a lot of resentment of the young English directors in the theatre community here--among both artists and critics. (See Feingold's ongoing disaffection with David Leveaux, e.g.) Playgoer is a huge unabashed anglophile so I won't pile on. But Charles Isherwood brought this to the fore in his February 27 Times column "The New British Invasion," exposing the season's big three American classic revivals (Streetcar, Glass Menagerie, Virginia Woolf) as having been outsourced to the Limeys. The bold and provocative defense of this by the producers involved was basically--hey, they're better. They're trained in the classics and so no on-the-job training. So, Playgoer asks.... what's the verdict? Now that the shows have opened, why doesn't someone follow up and ask: So what has all this "experience and wisdom" wrought on our beloved classics? Seasoned insight and professionalism, or just head-scratching moments of huh???

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