December 12, 2009

First Class on "A Streetcar Named Desire"

Marlon Brando famously hijacked A Streetcar Named Desire when the great Tennessee Williams classic first opened in 1947. Now, Cate Blanchett and Liv Ullmann, who star in and directed the production currently playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, have taken it back. 

Without resorting to the usual grab bag of high-concept tricks that trip up so many revisionists, they bring a feminist sensibility to the play that turns it into ladies’ night.  And the ladies are fierce. This time around Williams’ tale of the clash between the fragile and self-deluding Blanche Du Bois and her brutish brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski is decidedly Blanche’s play. And the second most arresting character on the stage isn’t Stanley but his wife and Blanche’s younger sister Stella.

There are few plays I know better or have seen more than Streetcar (as regular readers may recall, I did Blanche’s “He was a boy, just a boy” speech for my ill-fated audition for New York’s High School of Performing Arts over 40 years ago) and after having seen so many productions over the years, I liked seeing this new spin on the play, even if I saw it from the last row in the gallery section of BAM’s Harvey Theatre, which is so high and far away from the stage that the seats should come equipped with oxygen tanks and telescopes.

Purists may balk at the way that Ullmann has reenvisioned some key scenes but her interpretation seems totally plausible to me. This Blanche is gutsy.  Like many women who find themselves backed into a corner, she knows how to get out but is just too worn down to do what it takes. In one of the show’s most memorable lines, Blanche says that she has “always depended on the kindness of strangers” but as Ullmann’s production shows, with great effect, the only truly safe place for Blanche is a complete retreat into her fantasies.

It helps, of course, that Blanchett is playing Blanche.  I was sitting too far away to see the expressions on her face but even high up in the rafters, I could feel the power of her emotions. Blanchett is most famous as one of the movie’s most fearless female actors, the main heir to Bette Davis and Meryl Streep.  But Blanchett, who with her husband the writer Andrew Upton, is the co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company where this production began, is also a marvelous stage actor.  She is completely comfortable on stage, thoroughly commanding and able to connect with her fellow actors and with the audience.

Robin McLeavy, who plays Stella, is no slouch either.  So many of the actresses I’ve seen tackle the role in the past have played Stella as mousy and fidgety, desperate to please both Stanley and Blanche.  But McLeavy gives a full-bodied performance. Her Stella is, sexy and smart and, in a way, stronger than either her sister or her husband.

And while the women in this production have been toughed up, Stanley is allowed to be softer.  It works because Joel Edgerton brings a mischievous, bad-boy quality to the part that keeps the character from losing his edge entirely.  Plus (and forgive me for indulging in some sexism here) Edgerton is a hunk and his bare-chested scenes make plain what else Stella sees in the guy.

The play is being touted as the event of the season and all of Manhattan seems to be trekking out to Brooklyn to see it.  My friend Mary Anne and I got there early so that we could grab a bite at the Harvey’s lounge cafĂ©. While we sat there with our light supper, I spotted the director Stephen Daldry, the producer Liz McCann, the writer and culture omnivore Dan Okrent, and the columnist Stanley Crouch, whom I know slightly and who joined us at our table.  On the subway ride back into Manhattan, the entire car was filled with people debating Ullmann’s changes and Blanchett’s performance. 

It’s thrilling when a 60-year old show can stir up that kind of excitement.  I’d tell you to go see it before the three-week run ends on Dec. 20 but it’s already sold out.  Although there are a pair of tickets available on eBay if you’re willing to put out $3,000. 

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