By Charles McNulty
No surprise that when Cate Blanchett graces the stage in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” under the direction of Liv Ullmann (yes, Ingmar Bergman’s acting muse) that the interest is almost exclusively in the interpretation of Blanche DuBois. Sorry, Stanley — you may have hit a home run with Marlon Brando back in the day, but the play’s true protagonist is clarified in the Sydney Theatre Company’s otherwise erratic production, which had its New York unveiling Tuesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater.
Williams describes Blanche as a “moth,” and there’s something suitably pale and fluttery about Blanchett when she shows up at her sister Stella’s grimy New Orleans doorstep looking like a million bucks yet acting as though she’s in the midst of a full-blown nervous breakdown. It soon becomes evident, however, that this flying insect has wings of steel.
This is a far cry from Vivien Leigh’s Oscar-winning study in fragile madness. Blanchett is too sturdy — and sane — for that approach. Her Blanche adopts the usual veneer of helpless neurasthenia, but scratch the surface and you find a calculating mind and a dominating will. The fear of homelessness, not incipient insanity, darts in her eye. Time and a stained reputation have frayed the only safety net she’s known since the family estate has been lost — her sexual attractiveness. Cornered by harsh realities — economic as well as emotional — she plots to turn impending tragedy into romantic comedy by marrying the first decent man who will consent to rescue her.
Lapping up liquor as if it's water and regularly swooning with anxiety, Blanche signals to all that she's in desperate straits. But a meek houseguest she isn’t. Hogging the bathroom as she soaks her jangled nerves in the tub, she meets her brother-in-law Stanley’s resentment with a combination of flirtation and condescension. She browbeats and bosses Stella and schemes to wed Stanley’s oafish poker buddy Mitch, whose main appeal is the security he can offer her. Blanchett allows us to see the hostility and opportunism beneath the tattered gentility.
The production — which originated at the Sydney Theatre Company, where Blanchett and husband Andrew Upton are the artistic directors, and later played at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. — hasn’t fielded the strongest ensemble to set off Blanchett’s luminous central performance. Robin McLeavy’s indifferent Stella has little natural kinship with Blanche and the sparks don’t exactly fly with Joel Edgerton’s Stanley, who has the right chiseled physique and Brando-inspired nasality but not much feeling for the rhythm of Williams’ comedy or lyricism. Tim Richards’ Mitch, a blue-collar bozo, put me in mind of a comic-strip“Streetcar.”
Any revival of Williams’ 1947 masterpiece must contend with Elia Kazan’s stage and screen precedents and the many knockoffs they’ve inspired. How, for example, can anyone overcome the memory of Brando’s primal howling of “Stella” after the dust settles on his poker night conniption, in which he took a slug at his wife? Ullmann’s actors tepidly replay the moment, as if aware that it’s a losing proposition. The psychology they unearth is valid — Stella’s lust is tinged with maternal concern while Stanley’s agony seems like an Oedipal tantrum — but the couple’s passion gives off only generic thrills.
The direction is particularly weak in moving actors across Ralph Myers’ two-tiered set, which is distinguished by a dingy pink depiction of Stanley and Stella’s downstairs apartment. Exits and entrances muddle the stage geography, and logistical miscues (a radio that loses sound before Stanley flings it out the window) only compound the general uncertainty. Equally awkward are the transitions between realism and expressionism, which Williams, like Blanche, thought best to leave unpartitioned.
OK, but the stampede for tickets has nothing to do with scenic fluidity or the subtlety of Mitch’s characterization. The crowds have come for Blanchett, who possesses a knack for counterfeiting icons, having won an Oscar for playing Katharine Hepburn and critical acclaim for her portrayals of Elizabeth I and Bob Dylan. Blanche may not be plucked from the annals of history, but she’s as widely known as these famous figures — and consequently every bit as tricky to reanimate. Can the Aussie pull off another of her ingenious masquerades?
Interpretation rather than impersonation is the key to Blanchett’s success. Although it took me a while to appreciate some of her unorthodox choices (shouldn’t Blanche’s vulnerability be a tad more authentic?), the pathos of the character — and of the play as a whole — is powerfully released. And the result is certainly more satisfying than when Blanchett starred in the Sydney Theatre Company production of “Hedda Gabler,” which was presented at BAM in 2006.
How do Blanchett and Ullmann accomplish this escape from staleness? They reveal Blanche to be one of their kind — an inveterate actress, though not quite of their caliber. When Blanche first gets the idea of writing a telegram to one of her old suitors to ask him to rescue her and Stella, the veil is lifted on her shameless stage-managing. She’s not merely a Southern belle doing what comes naturally, but an artiste trying to salvage the flop of a life she’s stuck in.
The final scene, with a devastated Blanche depending on the illusory kindness of strangers as she’s ushered off to the loony bin, freshly registers just how ruthlessly unsentimental Williams’ sympathy can be. Mendacity is everywhere, and humanity’s more noble deceptions (the lies that lead to art and compassion) turn out to be the ones most brutally punished.
“Streetcar” has become a classic because of its stunningly flamboyant roles and flowing poetry. Less appreciated is the playwright’s intuitive thematic brilliance, but Blanchett embodies the crazy contradiction between civilization and barbarism that Williams knew could never be completely reconciled.