A Streetcar Named Desire
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
December 2, 2009
I've always accepted accounts of the half-hour curtain call at the Broadway premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire in the same way that I go along with the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah spawning scores of offspring when she was barren and he was 99 years old. But aside from, say, the strictly enforced 15-minute palm-striking at the Paris Opera Ballet, I thought such audience fervor at a theatrical event as likely as my grandparents suddenly repopulating their tumbleweed town in rural Missouri.
But after the Sydney Opera Company's production of Streetcar at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a wildfire of applause spread rapidly from the front to the back of the house, and I, like the rest of my fellow theatregoers, was effortlessly ignited. The duration of the ovation doesn't sound comparatively that impressive—three minutes, truthfully—but the five curtain calls (less "taken by" than) demanded of the modest and masterful cast were among the most fervent I have ever been a part of.
I cannot remember the last time I saw a revival that felt so much like a world premiere. Norwegian actress / director Liv Ullmann has helmed Tennessee Williams's oft-produced classic in such a way that the play itself seems to speak without intermediaries—almost without interpretation—placing nothing between the audience and the aching, howling soul of this play. Set in New Orleans, presumably around 1946-7 when it was written, Williams's play pits Blanche, a penniless, fading, and nascently nomadic Southern Belle, against her baby sister Stella's husband, Stanley, a brutish working-class hunk who will not indulge her appetite for illusion. (For a synopsis of this play, click here.)
This clash should be—and in the case of this production, is—elemental. Cate Blanchett's Blanche is nothing short of riveting: eloquent and cocky as she is slowly drawn and quartered by disparate desires that she can barely comprehend. Her trajectory of Blanche's psychological deterioration is at once disturbing (sudden starts and subtle near-collapses) and comical (speaking with distinction beneath a blouse). Did I mention that, all pathos aside, A Streetcar Named Desire is a very very funny play? I'd forgotten that.
Joel Edgerton is every bit Blanchett's equal. Yes, his Stanley sticks close to the Brando archetype in both voice and physique—and it is a rather jaw-dropping physique—but he is far more playful than your typical Stanley. And his bullying ways fade fast when he falls out of favor with Stella and turns into a sweet, tender mess. This Stella, played by Robin McLeavy, is exactly the kind of naturally beautiful, utterly uncomplicated, easily overlooked and anti-hysterical young woman her sister is not. McLeavy's Australian dialect occasionally peeks through, as does Tim Richards's—who is quite winning as Stanley's friend and Blanche's suitor Mitch—but they are otherwise, like Blanchett and Edgerton, the authentic embodiments of Tennessee Williams's singular and timeless creations.
So yes, this is a great play, and yes, this is a great production, and the response I felt after three-plus hours was the farthest thing from indentured applause. I'm also still stirred by something I got from that evening—something about the excess of desire we all seem to carry around and can't seem to offload, and how this desire—for sex or romance or comfort or care—is fed and capitalized upon. As the amount of unoccupied space diminishes and blank surfaces give way to eye-capturing advertisements, we are always so tantalizingly close to the images of what we want to possess, who we want to be. It's hard not to get worn out from all that longing. It's hard not to, like Blanche, want a reprieve.