It shouldn’t be this difficult to put on a classic.
Over the past year, I’ve seen Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Anton Chekhov, and, now, Tennessee Williams restaged to various effect. The Iceman Cometh at BAM was probably the most successful of these. The current production of A Streetcar Named Desire at St. Ann’s Warehouse is the worst and most artless revival I’ve seen yet—ironically, given how much effort seems to have been put into its flair.
For those who somehow missed reading A Streetcar Named Desire in high school English class, it is the story of faded Southern belle Blanche DuBois, who has arrived at her younger sister Stella’s humble abode in New Orleans via the titular streetcar. She lives there with her working class husband, Stanley, whose crude manners leave something to be desired for the decorous and high-strung Blanche. The two of them engage in an escalating back-and-forth, building tension until the devastating final act. Though dated by an archaic attitude toward mental illness, and its setting in a decaying South, it’s Mr. Williams’s magnum opus, and rightly so.
“How do we update this play?” seems to have been the first thing director Benedict Andrews asked himself when creating this adaptation, thereby begging the question. The play does not need updating; its bones are strong and calcic with drama. What he should have asked was, “Am I smarter than Tennessee Williams?” If so, I am impressed. But the production I saw belies an affirmative answer.
The first problem is the staging. Of late, unconventional staging has served as a kind of immediate red flag, signaling that someone has decided to annoy his audience. The set here is an elongated rectangular stage, which rotates fully 360 degrees in the warehouse space, to an audience in the round, for the entirety of the show. It is unremittingly vexing. At either of the short ends, one is almost guaranteed to miss someone’s face or body language, or hear a muffled delivery of some renowned line. I am sure that Mr. Andrews would let me know exactly how the circuits of his set induce dizziness in a viewer in order to mimic Blanche’s meltdown. I am sure he would tell me that the open walls into the cramped apartment are meant to make us feel like voyeurs. This is all well and good for a theater major’s thesis on alternative staging opportunities.
In practice, it is beyond frustrating, a fact that was thrown into sharp relief during one of the rare times the set brought Gillian Anderson very close to me and I was able to briefly see the full effect of her luminous performance. I would have paid any amount of money to be able to see it for the whole show.
Anderson is resplendent as Blanche, the one redeeming feature of this production. Her face is a nuanced canvas, painting determination, vulnerability, heartbreak, disgust, hunger, and shame in equal measure. Her many monologues, which could so easily drag, soar instead; she is so ferocious in her portrayal that you begin to think Blanche is going to get away from these fools and be just fine.
Partially this is because Ms. Anderson is operating in a stratosphere all her own, and the other principals seem almost afraid to go near her. This is especially true of Ben Foster as Stanley Kowalski, who is almost never proximally close to Anderson’s Blanche, preventing them from developing any real chemistry.
Mr. Foster plays Stanley closer to Woody Allen than Marlon Brando, twanging a nasal and petulant Philly-Boston caricature the whole way through. He is whiny and nebbish in the scene where he accuses Blanche of hiding the profits from her family estate Belle Reve, more accountant than beast. He seems more irked by her presence than incensed, so when he utters that startling, notorious line, “We’ve had this date with each other since the beginning,” it felt less than true.
Vanessa Kirby as Stella employs an accent that would be curious were it not so mortifying. At first, I thought they had allowed Ms. Kirby to simply retain her natural British accent, which would have been vastly preferable to the tangled and torturous hybrid of that and a cartoonish Southern inflection that even Foghorn Leghorn would have proclaimed over the top. I imagine that she is a very fine actress, but the labor she required for every bit of dialogue was so distracting as to force me to simply imagine that possibility. Physically at least, her Stella is an overtly sexual one, one who wears crop tops and undulates around the set. It’s an interesting idea, but it takes the potency and mystery out of her and Stanley’s relationship. Stella was a prim debutante at one point in her life who has been unlocked by Stanley. It’s the strangeness of mousy Stella with bestial Stanley that so hypnotizes Blanche when she returns to him after he hits her—although it was hard to tell what these actors in particular were doing in this scene, as the scaffolding had just rotated in front of all three of their faces to take us into intermission.
Another “clever touch” in this production is the blaring of loud modern music between each and every scene transition. In much of the first act, this is electronica and heavy metal; the second act begins, cringingly, with “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak. It is obnoxious and amateurish, and I observed more than one audience member cover his ears in an attempt to block the cacophony. Even Bertolt Brecht would object to this kind of audience alienation.
These showy magic tricks add nothing to the understanding of the play and in fact do a disservice to the source material, distracting from any real emotionality that manages to escape through these gimmicks. It’s like watching David Blaine attempt serious theater. Blanche famously declares, “I want magic,” but I presume this is not the kind she meant.