Theater

Benedict Andrews’s ‘Streetcar’ Dazzles — and Disappoints

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My reservations about Benedict Andrews’s slick, vacuous production of A Streetcar Named Desire, now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse, began with the set. An oblong, stark-white box with exposed beams and ribs, it slowly rotates, providing voyeuristic glimpses into the bathroom where Blanche (Gillian Anderson) retreats to soak, or momentarily framing characters in eloquent images, almost like photographs on the wing. It’s an ingenious piece of stage machinery. But it looks more like
a skinned Williamsburg condo than Stella and Stanley Kowalski’s shabby apartment in the French Quarter of 1940s New
Orleans. They couldn’t afford it, and wouldn’t like it, either. Instead, the
gleaming cube serves as a lavish but empty display case for a couple of rampant star performances in Anderson’s Blanche and Ben Foster’s Stanley, intended to show them off to best advantage.

Andrews time-warps the proceedings to somewhere near the present, judging by Blanche’s Louis Vuitton luggage and the pervasive presence of skinny jeans and cargo pants. Updating a classic can allow directors to draw fertile connections between eras, but Andrews doesn’t offer a strong interpretive reason for the move. This production transpires in a vacuum, the play’s markers of place and time ignored or misapplied.

And that’s a pity, because Streetcar is actually very timely. It’s been so mythologized as a play about the conflict between Blanche and Stanley, and the opposed principles they embody — fantasy and reality, art and commerce, civilization and brutishness — that we can forget the way these ideas reflect midcentury America’s inner divisions. Tennessee Williams stages a confrontation between the white-dominated, past-obsessed culture of the Old South and the multiethnic,
materialistic culture of the new post–World War II America. He also foretells a heterosexist Fifties with no room for the queerer kind of desire that Blanche represents, one that doesn’t automatically lead to married reproduction. Neither of these struggles is over.

But Andrews’s production doesn’t
really feel rooted in America at all. This isn’t just a matter of the wandering accents, but of a greater obliviousness to the play’s world. New Orleans, then and now, is a deeply African-American city. Andrew’s half-hearted gesture to this
reality is to have Claire Prempeh, who is black, periodically pace the margins of the stage. But with barely a line, she’s
effectively human scenery.

Andrews gravitates toward lurid directorial flourishes: blood on a white countertop; harsh fluorescent lights flaring as Blanche’s deceptions are punctured; Stanley squatting, ape-like, above Blanche’s prone form. These are striking images, beautiful even. But they mostly redouble what’s already there.

The production does have its rewards. Anderson’s Blanche, aflutter with roiling tension, sighs her lines in singsong Southern cadences. As Stanley, Foster
escapes the glowering shadow of Brando by ruthlessly stressing the character’s
insecurity. This Stanley tries too hard;
his abrupt bouts of violence derive from inner dissatisfaction. Corey Johnson beautifully captures Mitch’s shift from shambling, apologetic eagerness to wounded anger.

Like Blanche herself, the production overstays its welcome. As the evening wears on — nudging three and a half hours — the unrestrained acting turns melodramatic to the point of claustrophobia. At the end, Blanche isn’t just led away to the asylum, she’s paraded before the audience, as though to indict us with her martyrdom. But, like Stanley and Stella, we’re mostly just relieved she’s gone.

A Streetcar Named Desire

Directed by Benedict Andrews

St. Ann’s Warehouse

45 Water Street

718-254-8779, stannswarehouse.org

Through June 4