Theater review: 'A Streetcar Named Desire' at BAM Harvey Theater

By Charles McNulty

Top: Cate Blanchett and Joel Edgerton. Credit: Richard Termine.

Top: Cate Blanchett and Joel Edgerton. Credit: Richard Termine.

Cate Blanchett. Credit: Richard Termine.

Cate Blanchett. Credit: Richard Termine.

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.

SummerStage 2009 | Central Park's Rumsey Playfield: NYC

Production & Stage Management

Featuring Artists: Reality Shock, Yaakov Chesed, Shauli + more TBA (Salute To Israel), TV on the Radio, Dirty Projectors, The New York Pops with Josh Ritter, Smokie Norful, Tye Tribbett & G.A., Ruben Studdard, Indigo Girls, Matt Nathanson, Wally Lamb (Reading from “The Hour I First Believed”), Sharon Olds, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Elizabeth Alexander w/Stephen Burt, Comedy Central Park: Gabriel Iglesias, Pablo Francisco, Earthdriver, Staceyann Chin, Jennifer Johns, ArtBattles, Urban Word NYC, World Music Day with Yannick Noah, Coralie Clément, Mayra Andrade, 311, Ziggy Marley, Istanbulive: The Sounds & Colors of Turkey Mazhar-Fuat-Özkan, Painted on Water, NY Gypsy All Stars, Esperanza Spalding, Ledisi, Jonathan Batiste, Explosions In The Sky, Constantines, Castanets, Oumou Sangare, Les Nubians, Juana Molina, Curumin, El G (ZZK), Matisyahu, Umphrey’s McGee, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Eric Bobo, Family Day w/ DJ Lance Rock & Brobee, Nickelodeon’s New Preschool Band, Billy B., Storytime with Iza Trapani, The Metropolitan Opera Summer Recital, Q-Tip, Chester French, Little Dragon, Benji B, Alpha Blondy & The Solar System, Lee “Scratch” Perry & Dubblestandart, Subatomic Sound System, Bettye Lavette, Budos Band, Rhythm Revue with Felix Hernandez, Jerry Rivera and special guests, N’Klabe, Ginuwine, Joe, Chico DeBarge, RIOULT, Germaul Barnes, Viewsic Expressions, M. Ward, Nels Cline, Mike Watt, The Pretenders, Juliette Lewis, Cat Power, Morphoses (Dance), Dinosaur Jr., The Walkmen, Paul Van Dyk, Black Crowes, Levon Helm Band, Truth & Salvage Co., Phoenix, Passion Pit


Dance Review | Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company and Martha Wainwright

Meeting of Many Minds (and Bodies)


Members of Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company performing “Fool’s Paradise” in Central Park on Friday evening. Credit Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Members of Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company performing “Fool’s Paradise” in Central Park on Friday evening. Credit Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

On Friday night at Summerstage in Central Park, under a cloudless sky in which stars became gradually visible, the singer Martha Wainwright and the dance troupe Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company shared a program (repeated on Saturday). As my companion remarked, the first half felt like a Martha Wainwright concert with some dances tacked on. The second half, however, became more substantial in terms of both dance and Ms. Wainwright’s music.

Charmingly assured and no-nonsense, the blond Ms. Wainwright delivered song upon song. When she was not leading her musicians (who on Friday included her husband, Brad Albetta; her mother, Kate McGarrigle; and her cousin Lily Lanken) in her own songs, she led them in numbers ranging from Vaughan Williams to Annie Lennox.

In both voice and music, her span includes country and blues; and her singing has sometimes a chesty blues intensity, sometimes youthful country innocence, with ascents into falsetto half-voice and a deliberate use of breathiness and vocal cracks as part of the expressive mix. This is singing that relies on a marked use of mannerism. But it’s also real singing, in which the voice itself, musically, is often very directly affecting.

Her diction varies: in some of her own songs you could lose track of the words, but never for an instant in “Stormy Weather.” This classic song came in the middle of Part 2, and found Ms. Wainwright at her most intense and also, in phrasing, at her most personal. Having reached that peak, she stayed there for the world premiere of her own “Tears of St. Lawrence,” walking through Edwaard Liang’s and Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography at the beginning and the end.

Traditionally the tears of St. Lawrence are the meteor showers that may occur around St. Lawrence’s Day (Aug. 10). The new ballet ended with the dancers and Ms. Wainwright each extending an arm diagonally to the sky, holding what looked like a star.

The program says, “All choreography, music, and lighting are by Edwaard Liang, Christopher Wheeldon, Martha Wainwright, and Mary Louise Geiger, respectively, unless otherwise noted.” The “respectively” caused confusion. So, to Wheeldon followers, does the fact that only one item, “Tears,” is called a world premiere. (Summerstage had commissioned both the score and the dance.) On checking, I find that everything except Mr. Wheeldon’s “Fool’s Paradise” (2007) was having its premiere on Friday, and that all choreography was by Mr. Wheeldon except the dance quintet “Bleeding All Over You,” credited just to Mr. Liang, and “Tears,” which was by both men. Can’t Summerstage take more trouble over these matters?

An added minor confusion was the spelling of the duet printed as “Whither Must I Wander,” which is how Robert Louis Stevenson spelled the words and how Ralph Vaughan Williams spelled the title when he composed one of his “Songs of Travel.” Ms. Wainwright, however, spells it “Wither Must I Wander” on a CD, and that’s how Morphoses presented a preview performance of it this month in Vail, Colo. I don’t mind calling them Mr. Weeldon and Ms. Whainwright until they can decide wat’s wat. (The pas de deux features Wendy Whelan and Edward Watson, or possibly Whendy Welan and Edwhard Whatson.)

The first dances — the solo “Far Away” for Rory Hohenstein, the “Whither” duet, Mr. Liang’s quintet “Bleeding All Over You” (for Teresa Reichlen and four men), and the duet “Love Is a Stranger” (for Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia) — are all somewhat slick. Mr. Liang plays such organizational games with the men of “Bleeding” that for a while on Friday I lost all concentration on Ms. Reichlen. She had the best moment, though, as she advanced upstage away from the audience, addressing Ms. Wainwright eye to eye, sister to sister. And her authority and stretch were real pleasures, the grandest solo dancing of the evening.

In the “Far Away” solo and the two duets you can see Mr. Wheeldon’s clear way of structuring a dance into separate phrases, the sheer polish that lets you know that every movement has been choreographed, and the sensitivity to dancers. Almost invariably, each performer looks focused, attractive, sincere. But there’s often too much end-stopping to the phrasing; you seem to see where dancers and choreographer took their coffee breaks and then came up with a new idea.

Does the sharp contrast between one phrase and the next demonstrate stylistic skill or expressive incoherence? I like the control with which Mr. Wheeldon keeps making you pay attention, but I can’t get interested in these dances as thought or drama. And the way that some of the phrases rely on repeated upper-body gesture — what ballet people call a demi-character emphasis — has a cuteness (in some places) or obviousness (in others) that diminishes their effect as dance, as if trying to tell us What’s on These People’s Minds.

The two duets, “Fool’s Paradise” and “Tears of St. Lawrence,” also show how seldom Mr. Wheeldon can ever let dancers register as soloists. Even when they’re not partnering each other (as they do most of the time), these dancers tend to keep addressing or moving in unison with one another.

“Fool’s Paradise” has some striking quotations and derivations from Frederick Ashton’s “white” pas de trois, “Monotones,” which is (as Mr. Wheeldon acknowledges — Morphoses has danced it) an all-time summit of pure classical adagio dancing. Mr. Wheeldon has learned much about how Ashton connects one dancer’s line with another’s, the compositional wit with which, in a trio, one woman’s supported pirouette is echoed by a man’s unsupported pirouette, and other beauties. But he can almost never expand a pas de trois (as Ashton often does) across the whole stage to show these people as individuals and the drama of space. In duets his couples are never at opposite purposes. They’re always working in intricate combination, and the men get to do mighty little dancing beneath the waist.

“Fools’ Paradise” (set to taped music by Joby Talbot, the only work not played by Ms. Wainwright) and “Tears of St. Lawrence” both illustrate Mr. Wheeldon’s compositional skills. The big vertically ascending tableau with which “Fools” ends is a wow effect that might make any choreographer proud.

Against a setting of five male-female couples, “Tears” emphasizes the two men, Mr. Hohenstein and Mr. Watson. At first you think they may be a gay couple: the ballet starts with them doing the same lifts as the others, but in the foreground. Later, though, they’re separated and undergo separate adventures, some involving individual women.

Mr. Hohenstein does have a solo, which tries hard (gesturally) to communicate some brief drama, but it’s vague and soon forgotten. Overall, the choreography — which includes another “Monotones” reference — attends principally to partnering and pattern. On first acquaintance its expressive and stylistic limitations stop me from doing credit to its obvious compositional accomplishment.

Patterns of a Summer Night, to the Strains of Jazz, Tango or Gospel

Dance | Dance Review | Central Park SummerStage

In Central Park: Members of the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company performing in “Still Present,” created by Gina Walther in homage to the troupe’s founder. Credit Michael Nagle for The New York Times.

In Central Park: Members of the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company performing in “Still Present,” created by Gina Walther in homage to the troupe’s founder. Credit Michael Nagle for The New York Times.

Viewing dance at Central Park SummerStage is a little like watching television through the window of your neighbor’s apartment. If the faraway stage doesn’t pop with vigorous, athletic choreography, the point is rendered murky. And there lies the challenge of bringing original dance to the masses.

On Friday night at Rumsey Playfield, Nathan Trice’s Rituals, a relatively young group, shared the program with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, which was founded in 1968 by the visionary director Jeraldyne Blunden. For Mr. Trice, who formed his dance-theater company in 1998, there was a sprinkling of legible moments in “Strange Love,” a new work inspired by film noir, the pulse of urban life and jazz music.

Separated into three sections, this dance, for four couples, began as dusk was setting in. Women — each wearing a different shade of green, red, gold or peach — stood in front of the men, identically dressed in crisply formal white pants and shirts. With robotic jerks, the couples froze their bodies into stiff positions, the men and women staring at each other in shock and bewilderment. These poses undoubtedly had to do with Mr. Trice’s interest in film noir, but at such a distance, the performers looked like zombies.

Each scene opened with silence, followed by a jazz recording (John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, Bobby McFerrin, Chick Corea). Mr. Trice was most successful when his choreography allowed the dancers individual space to find abandon within the enthralling music. But the repetitive setup — silence, then music — and the overlong pauses between sections were anticlimactic and perplexing. While Mr. Trice moves bodies with logic, he places more emphasis on movement patterns than on steps; “Strange Love” was both too uniform and missing something integral in its desire to be eccentric.

The esteemed Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, based in Ohio and now led by Debbie Blunden-Diggs, the founder’s daughter, presented four works, beginning with “Still Present” from 2008. Created by Gina Walther in homage to Jeraldyne Blunden, who died in 1999, the dance served as a sparkling introduction to the troupe.

Wearing Maurita Elam’s yellow-and-gray ensembles, seven dancers performed to music by Marlena Shaw, Shirley Horn and Dizzy Gillespie. The second movement, set to Horn’s “Here’s to Life,” was the heart of this stirring dance, and Marlayna Locklear, in a poignant solo, stood out for her rigorous simplicity.

The other works fell into clichés, beginning with Shonna Hickman-Matlock’s “Unresolved,” from 2002, which featured a couple with little chemistry, a pair of chairs and too much empty yearning. Excerpts from “Milonga!,” a work by William B. McClellan Jr. in its New York premiere, energetically displayed aspects of the tango, though black costumes against a black backdrop concealed choreographic details.

And “In My Father’s House,” a 2007 dance by Ms. Blunden-Diggs, owed its most lucid moments to Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations.” Set to gospel music by Kirk Franklin and the Family, the rambling work was full of kneeling and swooning bodies, yet in the end, its feverish pitch offered little in the way of glorification.