A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the few perfect American plays, a mammoth masterpiece that puts most of our theater to shame. It must be intimidating to launch a revival as each new cast will always play their parts in the shadows of such giants as Karl Malden, Vivien Leigh, and, of course, Marlon Brando. Still, Emily Mann has directed a fine production currently running at the Broadhurst Theatre, marked by gorgeous, mournful jazz (courtesy of Terence Blanchard) and a mostly top-notch cast.
Stanley Kowalski (Blair Underwood) is a difficult character: he is all at once shrewd, apish, and viciously sexual, a man whose complexities are misunderstood by nearly everyone around him. Mr. Underwood is successful in Stanley’s sober scenes, his double entendres thudding against the floor as he sizes up his sister-in-law, Blanche DuBois (Nicole Ari Parker), playing the Neanderthal while quietly picking away at her insecurities and pretenses. And yet the violence that was always conspicuously lingering inside Brando is present not here; Mr. Underwood is not as convincing when raging drunk or roaring “Stella!” on his front stoop. Stanley’s first line to his wife (Daphne Rubin-Vega) is “Meat!”—more or less the basis of their entire relationship—but his face is too kind and his love for her not animalistic enough for this to be believable. When she explains his brutality by telling Blanche that there are “things that happen between a man and woman in the dark that sort of make everything else seem unimportant,” we can’t picture it. As for the notorious rape scene—he just doesn’t seem to have it in him.
Ms. Parker, on the other hand, handles Blanche wonderfully. Her prissiness is so fragile, her illusions devastating; Leigh, both in her personal and professional life, rarely won the sympathy of others—Ms. Parker humanizes the role. It is heartbreaking to her hear tell Mitch (Wood Harris), “I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth,” and she is absolutely right. Stella, after all, could never go on living with Stanley if she didn’t have her own little lies about him. Mr. Harris—an actor as different from Karl Malden as is possible—overcomes being cast against type and brings out the darker side of Mitch’s masculine sensibility; he is a gentlemen and a mama’s boy who nonetheless shares some of Stanley’s more poisonous views of women. Watching him struggle to see Blanche as both a fallen woman and the love of his life is exhilarating.
Granted, no Streetcar is complete without a brilliant Stanley and Mr. Underwood falls shy of being that. Still, Ms. Mann’s production doesn’t feel like a failure—most of the slack is picked up by the remainder of the cast and crew. It is flawed, certainly, but delicious.