“It’s only a paper moon,” sings the woman soaking in the tub in the sweltering French Quarter flat, and the phrase couldn’t seem more apropos. A Streetcar Named Desire has always been about illusion and affectation, a little bit of magic and a whole lot of disappointment, and that’s an apt enough shorthand for the opening production of the Kennedy Center’s summerlong Tennessee Williams Explored festival. Director Garry Hynes turns out to have an eye for Williams but not much of an ear for his strange, seductive poetry, and she delivers a sumptuous, somewhat tone-deaf staging that’s long on laughs and critically short on the dark music that can make the play so enthralling. The mark-your-calendar event of the theater season turns out to be a pencil-it-in.
This, despite its marquee attraction: As the threadbare belle Blanche DuBois, Patricia Clarkson looks marvelous and moves with the careful grace of some shore bird—a crane, perhaps, warily pursuing its lost language in the unfamiliar country inhabited by Blanche’s sister Stella and Stella’s brute of a working-class husband, Stanley. Blanche has come to stay with them only as a last resort—the family plantation has finally been lost—and the requisite desperation waits, coiling and uncoiling itself, beneath Clarkson’s languid angularities. Watch, in the play’s opening moments, the way she gropes for a drink in that cupboard, not stopping to relieve herself of the handbag at her elbow, of the single glove clutched in her still-gloved left hand, even of that lacy anachronism of a hat. Streetcar’s dramatic tension, and Blanche’s doom, arises from the clash between this creature’s ethereal externalities and the earthier, savvier instincts she’s always had, between her death-haunted experience and the rough, vital life she hungers for but can’t handle, and Clarkson’s Blanche seems more than usually aware of the gathering storm. Like a chess player as perceptive as she is overmatched, she sees her destruction coming several moves away.
That’s part of what’s off about this Streetcar. Hynes and Clarkson give us a Blanche who’s a degree too perceptive, whose command of strategy and tactics remains a whit too sure, who sees as much humor as horror in the happy squalor of the life Stella has made with her handsome beast of a husband. In Act 1, especially, Clarkson’s barbs about the hopelessly coarse Stanley and the home he’s providing for the genteelly bred Stella sound more wry and distanced than they often do, and the rhythms of the scene are those more often associated with situation comedy. Humor is one of the tools well-balanced people use to cope with the kinds of things that prove Blanche’s undoing; hysteria and a sense of humor make odd companions, and when a woman has such a firm grasp of life’s absurdities, it’s perhaps harder to understand why and how she loses her grip on herself.
There are other miscalculations. Hynes allows the long second act to stall more than once, employing blackouts that disperse what little momentum she’s managed to generate. She has either allowed or encouraged sound designer Scott Lehrer to underline big plot points with everything short of a silent-movie chord cadence on the Wurlitzer. The famous blue piano that underscores the entire affair is nicely represented, it’s true, but the thunderclap that accompanies one of Stanley’s exits is a trifle much, and such heavy-handed moments abound (including, to be fair, one or two that Williams insists upon). John Lee Beatty’s set is a mixed blessing, lovely to look at but limiting in the way its single level prevents the audience from seeing some of the comings and goings Williams describes in his stage directions—especially Stella’s slow return from the upstairs apartment after Stanley’s first-act eruption.
The other design elements—Howell Binkley’s humid-dream lighting
and Jane Greenwood’s eloquent, character-shaping costumes especially—are superb, with the one curious exception of the Almira Gulch getup Greenwood has created for the nurse who arrives at evening’s end to cart Blanche away to the loony bin. Catherine Weidner’s reading of the tiny role is severe, to be sure, but not nearly as severe as her outfit; she comes off like an unintended bit of comic relief rather than an agent of the play’s crowning tragedy.
Those are small weaknesses, though, next to Adam Rothenberg’s distinctly nonthreatening Stanley Kowalski, who’s all petulance and no real power. All bullies are babies underneath, certainly, but there’s rather more of the whiner in this Stanley than would seem advisable; he and Hynes almost seem to be making excuses for the character’s temper and his stupidities, to imagine that he’s one of the play’s victims rather than a victimizer. If that’s the idea, it’s wrongheaded: Williams doesn’t demonize Stanley, but neither does he especially mourn his griefs. Add to that Rothenberg’s odd acting decisions (including an over-the-top reading of that iconic “Stelllaaa!” moment that will live in memory as the Pole Dance of Stanley Kowalski) and his even more idiosyncratic choice of accent (a clipped, nasal noise, reminiscent of nothing so much as Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker), and the sum is a Stanley who’s easy to dislike and impossible to fear. You hate him a little, sure—but you don’t hate him enough.
Rothenberg’s Stanley seems especially underwhelming next to the touchingly awkward Mitch of Noah Emmerich and the sensitive but sensible Stella of Amy Ryan. The play’s second-tier twosome—Stanley’s anchor, Blanche’s last hope—aren’t always the vivid, human characters they are here. The solid, unshowy performances Emmerich and Ryan turn in provide much of the ballast in a production that might otherwise seem insubstantial, Clarkson or no Clarkson.
That lack of weight, aside from everything else that seems off about the Kennedy Center’s ambitious venture, has to do with the sense that Hynes, in listening for Williams’ punch lines, doesn’t seem to have heard the magnificent purple prose-poetry that’s among his most enduring contributions to theater. Blanche’s most feverish meditations, her most self-lacerating confessions, pass with a flatness that seems almost conversational. Of all the miscalculations and missed opportunities here, that’s the greatest. If there’s no poetry, no music, in Blanche DuBois’ slow surrender to the night, then Streetcar becomes just another sordid story of sex and poverty, an ugly tale lit by the glare of that naked light bulb. Me, I want magic. CP