It’s nice to be pleasantly surprised, as I was by the very fine production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire that recently opened at the Broadhurst Theatre. What might have sounded like an ill-advised new take on the play in which “color-blind” casting is done as little more than a stunt turns out to be a commendable, idiomatically valid interpretation of an American classic.
This time out, Nicole Ari Parker and Blair Underwood play Williams’ iconic nemeses, Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski — although, in this case, Stanley has been shorn of his last name. Let it be stated at the outset that the appearance of African-Americans in these roles stretches the limits of historical accuracy, and of course is not precisely what the author had in mind. But since the essential themes and plot points of Streetcar have nothing to do with race, this production works very well on its own terms. (Indeed, it’s far superior to the most recent Broadway revival of the play, in which the late Natasha Richardson was somewhat miscast as Blanche and John C. Reilly was epically miscast as Stanley.)
Parker is quite wonderful as Blanche. While she doesn’t portray this tragic heroine’s descent into insanity as graphically as some previous exponents of the role, she does an expert job of communicating her self-delusion and her “superior attitude” while somehow making her fully sympathetic to the audience. Underwood is rather less successful as Stanley; he doesn’t seem dangerous, and despite his superb body, he largely lacks the requisite sexual charisma. Still, the performance is solid enough in other respects that it doesn’t mar the play or the production to any significant extent. (For the record, the only Stanley I’ve ever seen who has fully inhabited all aspects of the role was the original, Marlon Brando.)
Although Daphne Rubin-Vega as Stella makes several acting choices with which I would take issue, she has a wonderful little-girl quality here, and she and Parker are believable as two sisters who love each other deeply but who have come to inhabit two different worlds. Wood Harris is one of the best Mitches I’ve ever seen — sweet-natured, shy, and utterly devastated when he discovers that Blanche isn’t who he thought she was.
Emily Mann has directed the production with skill, sensitivity, and a great deal of respect for the author. Eugene Lee’s set design and Paul Tazewell’s costumes are no more (and no less) than serviceable, but Terence Blanchard has provided original music that enhances the play and, at one point, allows the legendary dancer Carmen De Lavallade to cut loose in an ensemble role. Overall, this Streetcar is well worth your time and money.