If you believe in the inherent value of great plays—and I do—there’s something to be said for dull straightforward productions. The staging doesn’t pretend to be anything but a conventional reading of the play, leaving you space to contemplate the meaning of the play for yourself. There is always the possibility that great acting, even following a conventional trail, will illuminate the drama beyond any understanding you could achieve with your own thoughts, but “the best in this kind are but shadows,” as a prominent actor-playwright once remarked, and one mustn’t expect too much. In the meantime, you’re left alone, as it were, with the play in front of you, giving you a chance to contemplate it with relatively little interference. Even bad or inadequate acting, in this context, is sometimes helpful: a sharp reminder of what the play is not, underscoring its virtues by contrast.
This point is pretty much lost in our contemporary theater, where, distrusting masterpieces and hungrier for sensation than for quality, the powers that be have largely given the great plays—the few of them that we see—into the hands of self-proclaimed visionaries, reinterpreters, and deconstructors. When a genuine vision or a true and deep reinterpretation is at work, the results can be magical, or at least excitingly provocative. But most such forays induce, if anything, only enough boredom to prove that we were better off with the old system, in which the dullness onstage didn’t interfere with the excitement in the author’s creation. It makes even a sleep-inducing conventional production of a masterpiece seem like a welcome relief.
That roughly sums up the extent of my enthusiasm for Edward Hall’s staging of A Streetcar Named Desire. Dull and often awkward, it maintains a slow, plodding tempo, like the late-night “owl car” that Mitch catches after his date with Blanche. But Hall has not tried any fancy-dress weirdnesses of interpretation; he has not tried to make Streetcar “dark,” or deconstruct it, or made it take place in a bathtub. He has just put the good old Streetcar onstage, albeit clumsily, with a cast that mostly fills its roles instead of exploring or embodying them. But this approach has the negative virtue of noninterference: You get to see Streetcar, and you get plenty of mental space, while its altogether familiar events are unrolling, to contemplate the subtle and often twisty resonances that Williams put into his simple and devastating drama. As the actor-playwright quoted above went on to say, the worst performers aren’t that much worse than the best, “if your imagination amend them.”
Except for Amy Ryan, whose Stella is complete and three-dimensional, Hall’s principals require a lot of amending. At least for the first half of the evening, Natasha Richardson makes the outside of Blanche reasonably believable. (She gets an extra layer of character assistance from being beautifully cocooned in William Ivey Long’s stunningly apt outfits.) But Richardson’s approach is wholly exterior, and this is a problem for a role with as densely tangled an inner life as Blanche. Promiscuous and puritanical, hypersensitive and crassly lewd, an idealist who is also a compulsive liar, frantically escaping from a long parade of traumas and guilts, Blanche never means or does only one thing at a time. Richardson can “point” Blanche’s changes superficially, which is fine for the action’s first half, but when Blanche begins cracking apart, Richardson is left hopelessly stranded. Her “technique” tells her what to do with the words, but our focus is on what’s happening to Blanche underneath her words, and Richardson’s performance becomes abstract and unmoving, Blanche by the numbers.
She’s further hindered by a terrible stroke of miscasting: The fine and intriguingly quirky actor John C. Reilly has some interesting ideas about Stanley, but lacks both the menace and the sexual charge for the part. His bantam-cock pugnacity, even when it rises to the play’s violence, seems no particular threat to Stella and no match for this towering Blanche, who looks as if she could deck him easily. Matters aren’t helped by a ground plan that shoves their major encounters into inconvenient corners of the set, or by Chris Bauer’s earnest, uninspired Mitch. The only touch of distinction in the cast, aside from Ryan, comes from Kristine Nielsen’s coarsely poignant Eunice Hubbell; we get to see the way her raucous, combative marriage gives Stella an alternative role model to Blanche’s infuriating hauteur and condescension.
And this brings me back to the production’s virtue: its ability to stay out of the play’s way. Thick with ideas and emotions, Streetcar‘s text always offers more material to contemplate. Played out so unexcitingly, it provokes mental agility, to fill the vacuum caused by the performance’s inertness. I had never realized, for instance, the extent to which Blanche’s key trauma, the story of her husband’s suicide, parallels the later story of Brick and Skipper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Both Blanche and Brick have loved and brutally rejected a gay man, who then committed suicide. Both try to escape their guilt, he in alcohol and she in alcohol-fueled promiscuity; both run up against a more insensitive, more determined force (Stanley, Maggie) that traps them into its own agenda. Result: madness or confinement. This is how Williams views not only the battle of the sexes but his own internal battle. With its emotional indicators removed—for this drab production prompts no identification with either side—the map of the battlefield is easy to read, giving the young a good chance to learn how to make better productions of Streetcar.