Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Two for the Streetcar

Brando in the Elia Kazan film of Streetcar.

Rarely has a great play been so bound to its premiere production as A Streetcar Named Desire - or rather to a single actor in that premiere, Marlon Brando, who became almost bizarrely revered by the baby boom following his performances in On the Waterfront and The Wild One. Intriguingly, initial reviews of Streetcar dwelt on Jessica Tandy's Tony-winning turn as Blanche; the Times, in fact, only mentioned Brando in passing, and the Tonys ignored him entirely - but Brando soon left the stage for the screen, and the rest is history.

Of course, history is made to be rewritten, and it's high time for a revisionist look at the actor and his tic-laden style. Watching the film versions of Streetcar and On the Waterfront today, it's apparent that Brando was essentially a technical actor practicing Method tropes, rather than a Method actor at the core (a canny career move, as his vocal limits would have precluded much of a career in any other guise). What still stuns about Brando, of course (at left, in a gay soft-core pose taken during the Broadway run of Streetcar) is simply his physical presence - most remarkable in its heavy-lidded mix of feminine and masculine attributes. With his sensual lips, wounded eyes, and brutal brow, Brando operated as a kind of pansexual rough-trade icon; the perfect vessel, in fact, for the disguised homosexual projections on which Streetcar depended. (Unsurprisingly, Brando was even caught during the film's production locking lips with Laurence Olivier, the husband of Vivien Leigh, Brando's co-star as Blanche!)

Needless to say, the submerged gay content of so much baby-boom rebellion is a topic that few middle-aged heterosexuals are happy to explore. Still, it's surprising that both of the great rebels-without-causes (James Dean and Brando) were bisexual, and that the 50's iconic film epic (Giant) featured two queens (Dean and Rock Hudson) squaring off over Liz Taylor! (And let's not even get into Montgomery Clift, Sal Mineo, etc., etc.)

But back to Tennessee Williams and Streetcar, the play that afforded the mainstream its first taste of gay sex - dolled up, rather like Blanche herself, in diaphonous swaths of "poetry." It's possible, I suppose, to ignore the gay-male metaphor animating Blanche - but only if you squint really, really hard. Williams even broaches the subject himself, in the tale of Blanche's dead husband, who killed himself when caught in a gay liaison. (Is this the first direct, sympathetic mention of gay sex on the Broadway stage? Possibly.) Still, the salient point about "homosexual drama and its disguises" (to ref Stanley Kaufmann's notorious article for the New York Times) is how apt a proxy the gay perspective is for the straight one. A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the greatest plays about the destructive inevitability of gay and straight sex, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of the greatest plays about both gay and straight marriage. It does seem odd that straights should get most of their theatrical self-image at one remove, but until they start writing better plays, they've no one to blame but themselves.

The point I've been circling, however, in regards to Streetcar, is that it's driven by sex - hardly an original point, I know - but I'm afraid that's what's missing from the current production at the New Rep (only not between Stanley and Stella - we get that in spades - but between Stanley and Blanche). That the production should still hold, and even deeply move, us is a tribute to its cast and their commitment to the other "pole" around which the Williams world turns - that of memory.

Todd Alan Johnson, Marianna Bassham, and Rachel Harker in the New Rep's Streetcar.

This is surprising given that at first glance, Janie E. Howlands's clumsy set is all prose and no poetry - not so much the French Quarter as a construction site on the Vegas strip. (Is this really the same designer who expertly conjured the Vieux Carre in Five by Tenn a year ago?) The physical production makes us expect a blunt, Brechtian revision of Williams - but then director Rick Lombardo colors only within the traditional lines, so go figure (the effect of the set is eventually softened by John Malinowski's lighting, Haddon Kime's evocative sound design, and Frances Nelson McSherry's subtly appropriate costumes).

And it turns out there are a few surprises in Lombardo's palette. Rachel Harker's Blanche comes on as a good deal more sensible, even business-like, than many of her predecessors; Bates Wilder's Mitch is likewise a bit less sensitive and reflective than we expect; and most of all, Todd Alan Johnson's Stanley is smaller-scaled, and perhaps a tad more infantile, than usual. All these choices, however, are justifiable, and most bear artistic fruit as the performances progress: Blanche's decline is more marked, and Mitch's coldness less unexpected, for example.

Harker and Johnson, however, make one false step in tandem: neither sets up the underlying attraction between Blanche and Stanley (or the subsequent high-toned hypocrisy of her rejection of him) that should underpin the early acts, and at least offers us some understanding of Stanley's later cruelty. For Harker, the gap is even more problematic, as it robs Blanche of several levels of complexity; here she's never an operator, much less a predator, and as a result Harker ends up playing melodrama rather than tragedy. It's still a pretty effective melodrama, though, at least in the second act: Harker's at her best when tracing the arc of her "memory play" with Bates Wilder's shut-down, but still compelling, Mitch. When Harker connects with the fact that Blanche's flights of fancy are from her own nature as well as the world's, she'll have a performance for the history books.

Or at least one that can stand alongside Marianna Bassham's, who tops her recent turns with the Actors' Shakespeare Project in a carefully thought-through and utterly sympathetic portrayal of Stella. Bassham nails just about every aspect of the character - her rueful earthiness, her sexual awakening, her good humor and loving indulgence of Blanche - until, perhaps, the final scene, when Stella should certainly be more riven. Best of all, Bassham connects believably with Johnson, at least on a sexual level (her slow descent to his arms after he has struck her is perhaps the production's strongest moment). Johnson, for his part, manages to evade Brando's shadow (I was intrigued by his almost childlike vocal pattern, which somehow recalls Brando while staking out its own case), but tends to telegraph his temper tantrums (by suddenly jumping to high volume then dropping to low, for instance) and revels sometimes in Neanderthal mugging rather than working deeply through his unspoken agenda with Blanche. I get the feeling that Johnson is most free when in some form of disguise, and at times I felt him almost searching for one here.

To be honest, however, the cast most often sets its collective foot right than wrong, and despite a dozen small dissatisfactions, I was steadily aware of a growing sense of the depth and breadth of the play's achievement, particularly its almost-classic sense of inevitable doom. Streetcar, though oft revived on Broadway, rarely makes a stop here in Boston - and local playgoers should be well-pleased with the intelligence and care that has gone into the New Rep's model.

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