A Streetcar Named Desire
St. Ann’s Warehouse
45 Water Street, DUMBO
Many classic plays of the twentieth century are so situated in their time and place that they resist even minor attempts at modernization. Such is the case with this A Streetcar Named Desire at St. Ann’s Warehouse, which is a transfer of a production directed by Benedict Andrews that played in London in 2014. It is staged in the round on a revolving set that is nearly always moving, slowly and relentlessly, and this gets to be a problem. When you’re seeing a play like Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar, you shouldn’t have to be thinking to yourself, “I really hope the set turns enough so that I can see the expression on Blanche’s face in her next speech.”
The furniture is IKEA modern here, and Stella (Vanessa Kirby) dresses like a 1960s go-go girl while Gillian Anderson’s Blanche comes out on stage in large sunglasses and stiletto heels as if she were a Real Housewife of Laurel, Mississippi. The Kowalski apartment has a mobile phone that looks like it comes from the 1990s, yet Blanche listens to Xavier Cugat on the radio and Stella speaks of getting “an allowance” from her husband. This production definitely doesn’t take place in 1947, when Streetcar first premiered, but it’s unclear just when it is supposed to be happening.
In the first half of the play Anderson makes for a tough, managing, shamelessly flirty Blanche, who is presented here as a wily lush and nearly 100 percent phony in her posturing with men and her air of refinement. Blanche DuBois is such a large, challenging, multi-faceted role that most actresses can only get aspects of her right, and Anderson chooses to emphasize the hard snobbishness in Blanche, so that when she speaks of being soft it doesn’t ring true.
Anderson’s most effective moment in this production is when her Blanche sputters out that she wants magic instead of realism to her disappointed beau Mitch (Corey Johnson). Anderson plays this speech as if Blanche hasn’t figured this out yet, and she takes a frustrated pause before coming to the word “magic,” as if this explains Blanche’s whole predicament. At a certain point in this late scene, as Blanche staggers over to the kitchen counter to get a drink, Anderson clearly chooses to have Blanche suffer a psychotic break, so that her face empties out. Until this break, Anderson’s Blanche looks like she will certainly survive somehow, but her mind finally shuts down under too much pressure.
Ben Foster’s Stanley seems far more Irish than Polish, and he exhibits some of the mannerisms of 1930s-era James Cagney without the charm. Foster’s chest is covered in unsightly tattoos, and his nasal manner is rough and un-ingratiating. Andrews stages the scene where Stanley drunkenly hits Stella in a very upsetting way so that we see blood coming out of her nose and blood on the cabinet where he punched her, and when Stella goes downstairs because Stanley keeps crying her name, Kirby’s Stella doesn’t quite seem like she wants to come back to her husband. We see them grappling on the floor and then in bed, and Foster and Kirby make it look as if Stanley and Stella have rough and aggressive sex but not necessarily good or satisfying rough and aggressive sex.
Anderson’s Blanche has flirted with Foster’s Stanley from the moment she sees him, but he never takes her bait and seems purely disgusted with her. All of this appears to be building to a violent collision in the lead-up to the rape scene, and so it is a strange choice when Anderson swoons in Foster’s arms like some old-time damsel in distress. This production of Streetcar takes disparate cues and ideas from all over the place, with rock music blaring during scene changes and that revolving set always slowly turning, turning, turning until Anderson’s Blanche is led away to the snake pit, still teetering on her stilettos, her empty face aquiver with a sense of mute violation. This cannot be called a successful or well-rounded production of A Streetcar Named Desire, but its pell-mell rush of ideas is fairly compelling, and Anderson, against steep odds, does finally make a decent stab at Blanche.
Photos by Teddy Wolff