Parker & Underwood Bring New Brilliance to Williams’ Streetcar
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire
Opened April 22, 2012 (limited engagement of 16 weeks)
Playing at the Broadhurst Theatre
235 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036
Stanley: Blair Underwood, Stella: Daphne Rubin-Vega, Blanche: Nicole Ari Parker, Mitch: Wood Harris
Written by Tennessee Williams
Director Emily Mann
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
Reviewed by Troy Johnson
The 2012 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is a revival of the 1947 original. Williams received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948 for Streetcar. This 65 year old work has become an American classic.
The fine cast for the 2012 production of Streetcar includes 2-time Golden Globe nominee Blair Underwood, in his Broadway debut as Stanley, Nicole Ari Parker ("Soul Food") as Blanche DuBois, Daphne Rubin-Vega ("Rent") as Stella and Wood Harris ("The Wire") as Mitch. Streetcar is directed by Emily Mann (Artistic Director of Princeton’s esteemed McCarter Theatre).
Streetcar tells the story of refined Southern belle Blanche DuBois who, under uncertain circumstances, loses the family plantation, Belle Reve in Laurel, Mississippi. Blanche moves to New Orleans to live with her younger sister, Stella, and her abusive husband Stanley. From there conflicts over class, friendship, family and the nature of love collide with tragic results.
Streetcar, perhaps Williams’ best known work, originally featured a Polish Stanley (Kowalski) and an all white cast. This most recent revival features a principally Black cast.
In 2008 another Tennessee Williams’ classic, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” was also recast with all Black actors including Broadway legends James Earl Jones, Terrence Howard, and Phylicia Rashad. Despite the all-star cast, Black characters in that particular play seemed more like a gimmick or a commercial ploy to fill seats rather than a serious attempt to breathe new life into Williams’ work.
Expecting more of the same with Streetcar I managed my expectations. A few minutes into the play I discovered my expectations needed no management. I lost myself into the characters as they resonated and rang true. While the removal of references to the original Stanley’s Polish background were required. Some of the original lines now have even more power.
When the fair skinned Blanche tries to explain to her sister Stella that her husband, who has a much darker complexion, is somehow not fully human, an "apelike, primitive brute", the impact on Stanley is much more profound and nuanced in this context. Indeed, one could make an argument that Streetcar actually works better with Black characters.
Nicole Ari Parker performance as Blanche DuBois was simply terrific. Parker’s ability to deliver the full complexity and depth of Blanche character’s was mesmerizing. Parker’s delivery would choke you up one moment and cause you to laugh out loud the next. She could evoke sympathy and disgust all at the same time from Blanche’s character. Parker’s performance was worth the price of the ticket. I see a Tony nomination in her future.
While Parker’s star shone most brightly throughout the play. The performances of the remaining principals was good — at time riveting.
The 47 old Blair Underwood was arguably a bit long in the tooth for the role of Stanley. The insecurity and selfishness of Stanley’s character is partially explained by the stupidity and inexperience of youth. While Underwood makes up for his age with a fine physique and abundant talent, a younger equally skilled actor would have been better for the role.
Setting age aside for a moment, Underwood turned in a very convincing performance as the completely unlikeable Stanley. His performance was strong enough to balance and complement Parker’s brilliance. Opposite Rubin-Vega the classic co-dependent relationship comes to alive with moving results.
Not all of the most interesting things took place on the stage during the performance. The reaction, by some in the audience, to some of the scenes were almost bizarre. A few people laughed during Stanley’s delivery of the now iconic cry, “Stella!”. A couple of guys behind me laughed out loud during the most dramatic and violent scene in the play. When the Underwood’s character Stanley took off his shirt several women yelled out as if they were at a male strip club. Unfortunately these incongruous reactions risk spoiling the mood and gravity of moments in the play.
A special surprise treat was seeing the amazingly spry, 81 year old, Carmen De Lavallade (award winning dancer with Alvin Ailey’s Dance Company and prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera) dance again. Though it was for just a few moments, it was a really nice experience.
Overall, Streetcar proved to be very entertaining and I thoroughly recommend it. The ability seamlessly to transfer Williams’ words from white characters to Black ones is a testament, to Emily Mann’s direction of the talented actors, and the brilliance of Williams ability to capture the universality of our collective experience.