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For better or for worse, Tennessee Williams penned characters who give such credit to stereotype and light caricature that they have become a part of the collective American conscious as baseball and apple pie. We know Blanche DuBois as the delicate, melodramatic and suffering Southern Belle. We know her younger sister Stella as the sweet, doting New Orleans wife of Stanley Kowalski, a brutish, violent Pole seething with lust and loathing. And after an evening of Garry Hynes’ misfit production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Kennedy Center, the realization that sometimes it is best to give in to stereotype sets in with longing and deep, distressing regret.
From the moment the curtain rises on John Lee Beatty’s enormous, ornately decorated two-room flat, there is the justified expectation that something special will happen in this space — a space sexy and carnivorous, ready to devour its prey. But instead of a steamy, operatic story set against the flavorful backdrop of the 1940s French Quarter, Beatty’s slightly raked stage swallows its actors whole. There is something inherently wrong with a production when its technical elements are more interesting than the action itself, and in this case, there are too many unforgivable wrongs to make Hynes’ dreadful version of this classic right.
After losing her last private sanctuary — the upper-crust family estate — as well as her honorable reputation, a desperate Blanche DuBois (Patricia Clarkson) seeks refuge in her sister’s home for the summer. She is received with kindness and sympathy from her sister (Amy Ryan) while brother-in-law Stanley (Adam Rothenberg) treats her arrival with bitter suspicion. Blanche must learn to cope with her less than glamorous existence in a house where she is both the object of desire and disdain. Her mental and moral decline is one of the most tragic and poignant tales in American theatre, and Clarkson’s attempt to reinvent such a celebrated and studied woman is but a small problem in an evening filled with bigger issues.
As the first production in the “Tennessee Williams Explored ” festival this summer, Streetcar had its work cut out. But under such misguided direction from Irish director Hynes, the play feels like Tennessee Williams on anesthesia. Hynes’ work here seems better suited for a television drama, which doesn’t translate well on such a drowning stage. Although she tries hard to create meaningful, picturesque moments between her characters, her efforts to stage with innovation fall flat. Hynes also attempts to infuse some kind of half-hearted elegance in to a play with desire in its title.
There isn’t anything elegant in her unbelievably long, inappropriate scene changes and lengthy transitions, nor should there be any elegance found in the character of Stanley Kowalski, who as described by Blanche early on, is both “primitive ” and “insufferably rude. ” Hynes’ biggest misstep is the miscasting of Rothenberg, a young actor who offers an annoyingly high-pitched “Joisey ” dialect. Rothenberg’s ridiculous interpretation of Stanley is nothing more than a comical cartoon character with split personality disorder.
Audiences will be hard pressed to believe that Stanley Kowalski is a wrathful, ruthless beast when he prances around the stage and seems oblivious to the woman who, as written, not only gets under his feet but also under his skin. There is no evidence that Stanley is at all irritated or affected by his sister-in-law’s looming presence until he has some bit of dialogue or stage direction to follow. Since Rothenberg offers no behavior modulation or insight to his character’s psychology, his actions seem contrived and his performance rings false. He is even demonstrative toward the woman who drives him up the wall — but never so literally as in this production when Rothenberg climbs up a kitchen pipe as an acrobatic monkey in a familiar tree, crying out in that signature wail, “Stella! ”
Clarkson definitely succeeds at creating a new Blanche, but trying to update the fragile centerpiece to Williams’ fictional history is like petrifying a beautiful honeysuckle where all that is left is cold, hard, polished stone. It is abundantly clear that Clarkson and company don’t trust Williams’ script to stand on its own, away from affected, serio-comic spins and modernization. Blanche isn’t always so much aware of her humor as Clarkson is — most of her wry sarcasm is dripping with irony, and not the kind intended for laughs or guffaws. When Blanche pleads with Mitch (Noah Emmerich in the best, most understated performance of the evening) that, “I don’t want realism, I want magic! ” both Clarkson and Hynes should take the hint from Tennessee.
The majority of Hynes’ cast offers uneven, inconsistent dialects: you wouldn’t know you’re in the French Quarter save for Beatty’s marvelously detailed scenery and the various references in Williams’ script. But thankfully Scott Lehrer offers a dramatic soundscape with colorful “Nawlins ” jazz and lovely music to underscore Blanche’s death speech.
Ultimately Hynes fails to connect the main characters who seem to dwell in three separate spheres. The result is a miserable form of spliced up, diced up theatre that will disappoint audiences seeking a dynamic or definitive production of the Williams classic. What they will find in its place is simply a Streetcar named disaster.
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