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Theatre in Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (Young Vic/St. Ann's Warehouse)

Gillian Anderson. Photo:Teddy Wolff.

Apparently, there is now a school of Ivo Van Hove. It consists of European directors taking classic American plays of the mid-20th century, stripping away anything specific to their period or location, and mounting them on antiseptically modern sets, often with peculiar staging gimmicks. So it is with Benedict Andrews' production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which is set in a very contemporary version of New Orleans' French Quarter. The ladies of the neighborhood frequently appear in cut-off denim shorts with T-shirts. Stanley Kowalski wears brand-name boxer briefs. When Blanche DuBois appears, she is in a chic raincoat and gold heels, sporting big sunglasses and trailing a large rollaboard. The Kowalski apartment -- as always, two rooms separated by diaphanous curtains -- is a skeletal all-white-and-aluminum environment that comes with such mod cons as a Mr. Coffee. (Magda Willi is the scenic designer.) We get to see plenty of the lavishly appointed bathroom, and not just because of the scene in which Stella sits on the john and pees while talking to Blanche. It's that the play takes place on a circular stage that revolves for ninety-nine percent of the running time. (The audience is seated on all four sides of the theatre.) The turntable speeds up and slows down; it moves clockwise and counterclockwise. It does all sorts of things, but one thing it doesn't do is make a contribution to our understanding of Tennessee Williams' tragedy.

After a while, one becomes accustomed to the constant whirling movement -- during the first 15 minutes, I was afraid I was going to need Dramamine -- and you have to admire how the actors who play Eunice and Steve Hubbell, who live in the upstairs apartment, so efficiently seize their once-a-revolution moment to catch the stairs leading down to stage level. But, inevitably, no matter where in the theatre one is sitting, sooner or later, when something important is happening, one is left to stare at the Kowalskis' shower curtains.

Furthermore, this constantly-in-motion approach doesn't feel especially suitable for a play that derives its principal tension from the problem of diametrically opposed temperaments forced to share close quarters. There's no claustrophobia, no sense that violence can strike at any second. Gone, too, is the ambience of a poor section of the French Quarter, where the heat, squalid living conditions, and pleasure-seeking population all have a destabilizing effect on Blanche. And, after the climax, when Stanley rapes Blanche, we have to sit there for several minutes, watching the supporting cast clean the set for the final scene, in which Blanche is carried off to an institution.

If the set design is more distracting than it might be, neither does it add anything, and during some of the production's duller moments you might find your mind wandering, trying to come up with a reason for putting four of American drama's most indelible characters on a merry-go-round. Actually, a lazy Susan might be a better point of comparison, so slow is the pace of Andrews' direction, which runs three and a half hours.

The production also features a pair of high-wattage stars who seem strangely at odds with each other. Gillian Anderson has the right air of nervous distraction, paired with the flirty, Southern-lady manners that are Blanche's only defense against the sordid reality of her life, and she is thoroughly comfortable with the role's considerable store of comedy, including the way she manages to down considerable amounts of bourbon while maintaining that she is, and always has been, a one-drink woman. In her first appearance, fleeing bankruptcy and scandal in her hometown, she makes a strong impression; without seemingly doing anything, she conveys the character's desperation, her deep-seated fear that she has arrived at a terminus.

At the same time, Anderson's performance suffers from monotonous vocal delivery; she speaks exclusively in a high head voice, often followed by a pathetic little laugh, which sounds increasingly cartoonish as the evening wears on. She almost entirely misses the character's deep vulnerability, the fact that she is only one step away from the gutter and yet still carrying on like the mistress of Belle Reve, her family's lost estate. She makes something operatic out of Blanche's drunken decline, wearing a wildly inappropriate orange ruffled gown -- it looks like something from Carmen Miranda's closet -- to her birthday party, and, later, staggering around the stage, slurring her words and smearing her face with lipstick. But when she gets to one of Blanche's most poignant speeches ("Strange that I should be called a destitute woman when I have all these treasures locked in my heart..."), the heartbreak isn't there. Anderson has her successes -- she does rather well by Blanche's account of her disastrous marriage, which ended in her husband's suicide -- but this isn't a Blanche DuBois to add to one's memory book.

Anderson also doesn't strike many sparks with Ben Foster's Stanley, although Andrews has directed her to come on to him so blatantly, it's a wonder that her sister, Stella, doesn't kick her out as a homewrecker. Foster is not an ideal Stanley; he's a bantam presence, which threatens to undercut the menace lurking in the situation, and in moments of rage, his voice has a nasal, aggrieved quality that is almost comic; one never quite buys the notion that this little household turns on his hair-trigger mood swings. The final showdown between Blanche and Stanley feels staged; when Stanley says, "You and I have had this date since the beginning," I didn't buy it.

Foster does partner very well with Vanessa Kirby's fine Stella -- the very model of an enabling wife -- working up a powerful sexual connection that goes a long way toward explaining why she puts up with Stanley's rages and beatings. Corey Johnson's Mitch, the soon-to-be-orphaned mama's boy who is at first dazzled by Blanche's artificial manners, is also first-rate; the cold fury with which he later tries to rape her is more unsettling than anything that happens between Blanche and Stanley.

The rest of the design has its oddities, too. Jon Clark's lighting casts a pitilessly bright white wash on the action; when a scene ends, the overhead LED units switch to a saturated color wash, accompanied by the thrash of metal guitar chords, contemporary jazz, or pop songs, all of rendered with assaultive loudness by the sound designer, Paul Arditti. (Some of the music is original, by Alex Baranowski.) Arditti also provides a number of other ambient cues, including the nearby streetcar (which sounds strangely like a subway here), cathedral bells, and the plaintive little piano waltz that Blanche hears when thinking of her late husband. Victoria Behr's costumes are all over the place. Blanche's birthday-party dress, mentioned above, is a vulgar creation, the kind of thing she wouldn't be caught dead in. The dress she dons in the climax -- a pink taffeta gown with a spangled bodice -- suggests that Blanche has been hanging on to her senior prom dress lo these many years. Other costumes, such as the suit worn by the doctor who comes for Blanche, and most of Mitch's outfits, seem to come from the 1950s.

The biggest problem with updating Streetcar has less to do with how the details no longer fit -- Why is Blanche still calling Western Union, using a cordless phone, no less, to reach her wealthy former beau? -- than with the fact that for the characters the time is out of joint. Blanche is a creature of the old South, a largely rural society with distinct class lines and over-refined manners -- that was rapidly vanishing by the time Streetcar opened in 1947. Stanley is a creature of post-World War II America, an industrial society where class lines have collapsed; there is no way that he will not unthinkingly, remorselessly destroy her. Blanche's awful fate, her slide from a once-splendid plantation to a sordid residential hotel ("The Tarantula Arms") where she can be had for the price of a cocktail, simply isn't believable. (Today, Blanche wouldn't go mad with shame; she'd get a therapist, a book contract, or maybe even a reality show on Bravo, produced by Andy Cohen. )

For all its melodrama, A Streetcar Named Desire needs very careful handling, something it doesn't get here. Andrews' starkly theatrical approach manhandles Williams' text. "I don't want realism. I want magic!" cries Blanche in a desperate moment. This production manages to stint on both. -- David Barbour

(2 May 2016)

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